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Understanding Statistics

 

In my Research 2 class (in graduate school for social work) we have reached the dreaded world of statistics. There’s a lot of math involved in this process, and even more incomprehensible data-to-Math-to-Greek-to-Computational-Tables-to-English translations. And what I’m realizing is that a lot gets lost in the translation from reality to statistics.

It’s not that I think research is a waste of time. It matters. But not enough time is spent on elucidating the data, and remembering the anecdotal evidence that makes up the data. Anecdotal evidence (or individual stories told to the researcher) is often considered unreliable, but masses of data, detached from its origins as anecdotal evidence, is considered reliable. We end up taking a lot of valuable information, and turning it into numbers and graphs, and forgetting where the data came from in the first place. People.

As we have discovered over the past year in the United States, polling is only as valuable and legitimate as the questions asked and the answers recorded. If people are asked the wrong questions, or distrust the person asking them, then the data that results will be incomplete, if not completely wrong.

If we looked at certain data about Butterfly, like: heart disease, diabetes, aged twelve out of a 13-14 year expected lifespan, few teeth and those that are left are not good, persistent cough – you’d think she was at death’s door, and miserable. But she has the biggest smile in the world, runs like the wind, comforts her sister, loves to be petted, loves food, licks me to death, and I could go on and on. You wouldn’t know any of that if all you asked was “What’s wrong with Butterfly?” or “Describe Butterfly’s health.”

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“What’s wrong?”

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“Absolutely nothing!”

The reliance on big data, and mass polling, has developed (as far as I can see) as a good faith effort to get a sense of what’s going on with everyone, instead of just with the easiest people to access. A doctor who sees a hundred patients on a regular basis may have a very good sense of the health issues of those hundred patients, and no clue whatsoever about how her patients fit into the patterns of the population at large. They may be anomalies – because they can afford her fees, live in a certain geographical area, and have certain specific symptoms – or they may be average, she can’t know. That doctor needs access to a wider swath of the population, in order to put her patients into better perspective. But what is the quality of that data? Who chose the questions to ask? What biases were at work? Which questions, that she would have known to ask based on her experience, were left out of the questionnaires filled out by all of those anonymous people that she cannot call and follow up with?

Recently, I heard about research done on the question of abortion. It’s a thorny area to begin with, but the way the polling is done can make it even more confusing. If the question is, do you support abortion? Or, would you have an abortion yourself? A lot of people will easily, and quickly, say no. But if the question asked is, do you think abortion should be legal? Many of those same people will say yes. It turns out that, on this specific question, people have different opinions about what they themselves would do, than on what they think others should be able to do in their own lives. The people setting up the poll would need to understand that gap in order to ask the right questions and really understand the data they are receiving.

This kind of gap can exist on any subject, and it requires open-minded researchers with a willingness to question the data and look deeply at their questioning process. Without those extra steps, the data can profess things that are not actually true, or that are, at best, incomplete.

If I asked Cricket if she prefers peanut butter or chicken, chicken would win every time. And if that were the only question asked, you might come to the conclusion that she doesn’t like peanut butter at all – especially if you could see the way she sneered at the peanut butter on her way to ripping the chicken from my hand. But the fact is, she loves peanut butter. She will take any medication offered, as long as it is covered in peanut butter. But we didn’t ask her the right questions, so we never found that out.

When we hear about study results in the news, especially on TV or from the mouths of politicians, we rarely hear about the context of the study, or the methods used. We are given simple numbers, or better yet, bar graphs and pie charts, to make the point very clear. But once a study’s results have been translated into numbers and graphs, our ability to determine for ourselves the validity of the study’s methods, questions, and analysis, disappears. In fact, people rarely take the time – or even get the chance – to read through a full study report, even though researchers put a lot of effort into examining and going into detail about the choices they made, why they made them, and where they may have gone wrong.

What if, after hearing the results of all of these polls and studies, and staring at bar graphs and pie charts and news anchors for hours and hours, we come away believing that we know each other perfectly, and can therefore dismiss each other? And what if we’re wrong?

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“We’re never wrong. Right?”

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“What a relief.”

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

88 responses »

  1. If you happen to be reading Nonparametric Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences, by Sidney Siegel, he was my uncle!

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  2. I am thinking this is all alternative facts or fake news…..Pass the peanut butter and let’s get down to the serious stuff. Like how cute these pictures are of Cricket and Butterfly. Good luck, Rachel.

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  3. hairytoegardener

    My former boss (assistant dean) taught statistics. She referred to statistics as “sadistics,” which made everyone laugh. She was well-loved by all of her students, even those who struggled through her statistics class. She even made up a song for her class and played the guitar to her students while singing her statistics song to help them memorize something. She was a fabulous teacher and freely admitted data could be easily manipulated. I learned about the statistical outlier from her.

    Anyway, when I read a statistic, what I always want to know is who funded the research because sometimes those who do the funding influence the result or the questions asked.

    Good luck with your class! I hope you have an excellent statistics professor.

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  4. I too did not like statistics. Perhaps more important to generally understand stat well enough to read scientific articles and establish a good relationship with a statistician. The latter is so that you can carry out appropriate stats on your own research.

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  5. Whatever it is, STATISTICS indeed is a fantastic Science sans that there is no civilized society.A great research made, congratulations.

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  6. I actually liked statistics but I know most of the others in the program dreaded the class. It was fun for me even though I don’t care for math. And there’s Disraeli’s famous quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Some attribute those words to Mark Twain.

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  7. I recommend taking a qualitative research class. I did and enjoyed it a lot. There is only so much you can tell from averages. Often the outliers are way more interesting.

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  8. When I took statistics in graduate school, I thought that I had acquired serious attention deficit within the first five minutes. I felt that way almost all of the semester. And then it all clicked…it made sense, but I have rarely used it in my career!

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  9. For my Library Science Masters, I had to take a research class and a lot of what you mentioned we had to study. Statistics are a thing. I like them, but at the same time, like you pointed out, they don’t tell the whole story. I do love how you tied your dogs into it. They are so precious!

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  10. What a wonderful and thoughtful post, thank you so much!

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  11. I’m with hairytoegardener in wanting to know who paid for the research, especially if it relates to medications and pseudo-meds. And I’m with loisajay in saying ‘please pass the peanut butter’.

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  12. I’m enjoying my current statistics class and hope the rest to come are more focused on the right questions to ask, as well as reminding me to get a good sample size. However, I take statistics with a grain of salt…I forget who said it but, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I feel this is a darned good rule to remember whenever things are presented as statistics.

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  13. Oh, Rachel… Social science stats was the only course I ever had to retake as an undergrad. I feel your pain, ramped up to the graduate level!

    I think using data is important, but only when we always temper that with a realization that each ‘digit’ is an individual…and individual things are going to happen! The stats don’t doom us to the results they indicate…

    And I agree completely that how and what we ask determines the answers we get…

    As always, a great post!

    Pam

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  14. Thoughtful post. I actually loved Statistics as undergrad and grad. But it looks at the overall mega picture. Individual experience can differ so we need to look at the different ways of experiencing the world. Good wishes on your pursuit of the social work profession. I’m trying to come to the end of mine having been in the field for almost 40 years.

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  15. Insightful post. Statistics can be helpful but without context and care they can be dangerous too. No doubt some anecdotal research can be unreliable – it too needs to be robust and well balanced.

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  16. I think your thoughts on the average life of a dog are spot on. We don’t have an average dog. We have our own wonderful cantankerous one. Our Westie lived for 19 years. Thank goodness I didn’t spend any time worrying about when she would totally wear out.

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  17. During a visit with my friend Jim’s neurosurgeon when Jim had brain cancer, the doc said, “If I just looked at your scans, I would be very concerned about you, but you seem to be doing fine.” Scans don’t tell the whole story. Thanks for this reflection on data and reminder that data does not tell the whole story.

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  18. Adorable puppies! Stats were my nemesis in college! I barely passed!

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  19. Hi, good luck with your research class, I’ve had both quantitative and qualitative research in Uni, what I realised is that you end up with a softer version of truth, people will lie in an anonymous questionnaire as a lot of them can’t face their own opinions or their fear of judgement from third parties. It’s 50% research and 50% guessing.
    What’s the name of the dog in the second picture?
    Lots of love xx

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  20. I’m fascinated by the Big Data, and you’re absolutely right that half the battle is the questions a researcher asks. So important! Knowing who funds the study, and how large/diverse the sample size, what variables are controlled for, etc. Very very good post. Thanks for writing this one. I’ve known multiple people who feel the same way about that thorny question. Have you seen John Oliver’s Scientific Studies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Rnq1NpHdmw) bit? My fear is that in trying to create a critical thinking population, instead you just get a populace that disbelieves everything science and research finds.

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  21. Thank you for this post. I am a quantitative researcher (in psychology), so statistics is the backbone of my research. I love writing up the numbers to tell a story! However, you make some very valid points. There is a place for both quantitative and qualitative methods in research, and I believe that it is important for all researchers to be aware of the positives (and negatives) of both methods.

    Generally, statistics allows us to see the “bigger picture”, and allows us to make generalisations to the broader population. However, as you say, numbers can be manipulated (although hopefully that doesn’t happen too often), and they don’t allow us to understand individuality and uniqueness (which is such an important part of being human).

    Keep at it! Hopefully you will soon be able to see the beauty in statistics!

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  22. Great post Rachel. When I first studied statistics in college I hated it but the more I did and learned the more I enjoyed it. There was a term one of my graduate studies professors in statistics used that stuck with me “liars figure and figures lie”. His point was graphs, charts, polls and studies can be made to represent what biases we may want to project or protect. Like you so wonderfully noted Rachel, “both quantitative and qualitative research can be manipulated, but more often, just misconstrued. So much depends on the insight of the research and the consumers of research.”. You have a lot of wisdom.

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  23. Polls get skewed by those like my peep. When he gets an unsolicited phone call asking for a few minutes of his time to answer questions, he says “I’m a professional consultant. For my opinions, I charge $150 per hour with a one hour minimum. I’m ready when you give me your credit card number”.

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  24. Funny you should post this today. I was in the gym yesterday (with my earphones on listening to my music trying hard to get a good workout in), and on the treadmill next to me were two very loud and very political gentlemen. Suffice to say, they did not share my political views and I found it very difficult to do my own thing in ‘the zone’ because they were so noisy and so mean about everything they were sharing. One ‘statistic’ one of the guys shared was: thousand (millions?) of people in Syria between the ages of 18 and 30 something aren’t even fighting for their own country!! So of course in my own head I thought to myself: And what population are we discussing here: are all these people women, the women who have been left behind with children because all the men (especially between those ages) have most likely been killed already, or are maybe trying to flee to find a better home for the family left behind? It IS all about how the statistician takes the poll and presents it, but also in how the person decides how to interpret it……

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  25. I’ve been wanting to say, for a while now, that your writing is outstanding as are the topics you delve into. This post is excellent and timely with your discussion of truth and the shaping of what we are told. I hope you continue your great compassionate writing.

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  26. We never lie, and we’re always right! There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. I think mark twain said that.

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  27. I could not handle statistics but since it was retired muddled through. It’s ironic because in today’s current political “environment” statistics could easily be manipulated don’t you think?

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  28. I spent 5 years teaching at a small community college in Columbia from 1982 – 1987. During that time I also took classes and eventually earned my master’s degree in teaching in vocational and community colleges. I loved the classes and made all A’s except one: statistics. I made a B and was glad to get it…a ridiculous course. Butterfly and Cricket might as well have been going to that class. Good luck!

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  29. Yap, Statistics. All I remember form the time I had to take it ( in the early 90’s ) is that I passed with 75% and I was so happy. The relieve I felt when the exam was over and the grade posted just can’t be expressed. Good Luck ! ❤

    Butterfly and Cricket are just adorable 😉 ❤

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  30. Interesting. It may be US social science is more fixed on quantitative rather than qualitative information than its UK equivalent is. But my subject background is History and History has always been illustrated with revealing personal stories while remembering many personal stories will be misremembered, lied about or simply unrepresentative.

    As for the abortion question, this is really basic. Abortion is not a good example because there is the question of the unborn baby’s rights if any, but if you take Gay marriage or BDSM, it’s absolutely central to Liberalism (in its European meaning, different from the common usage in the US) to take the position that personal moral beliefs (this is wrong) can coexist with opposing any attempt to force other people to comply with your, or the majority’s, belief.

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  31. You make interesting points about polling. I rarely give the results much credibility because how questions are asked generates response.

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  32. Dogs are never wrong 🙂 Nice post.

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  33. My engineering professor had that lies, damned lies and statistics quote on a hugh banner of continuous feed computer paper on the wall over the blackboard. I saw it several ties a week for over a year. I aced the class when i took it thanks to what he taught me. I also know just how the manipulations are done thanks to him, too. You brought back a great memory with a great post. It’s my opinion we should start introducing statistics in school much earlier. People wouldn’t hit a wall in college for one, but maybe the populace as a whole could be more aware of how they are being manipulated. My fourth and fifth grade tutoring students seem to get it just fine.

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  34. I used to work with statistical analysis before my injury. I’m so glad I’m not doing that now! As for Butterfly, tell her to think of Hannibal Lecter, who said ” A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

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  35. my dad used to like to comment about polls and surveys “lies, damn lies, and statistics” 😉

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  36. I hated taking statistics, but it’s really stayed with me when I read newspapers and research papers.
    I wish textbooks would throw in some nice pictures as you did!

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  37. It’s a fascinating subject, and it brings forth random thoughts. A view of the ‘Brexit’ referendum interested me: the final result was 52-48 in favour (rounded figures), but according to some the proportion of voters in favour of Brexit was in fact much larger: they only voted against because they did not dare depart from the status quo. The variation, according to this pundit, could be as wide as 10%. Then again, in any statistical sample I guess the anomalies, like MacDonalds, are to be found on every corner. My son and daughter-in-law’s dog Snuffy is, unbelievably, 18 years old. (And still sprighly, though she has forgotten why).
    On a more sombre note, I recall Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and the rabbit Hazel’s term for dying as ‘stopped running’. That, I believe, is a perfect way to describe the lifespan of an animal.

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  38. Nice pictures! I like the second one most, it’s very cute!

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  39. Love your blog! Thanks for the enjoyment.

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  40. This post is a “keeper” to look at from time to time and remind one of true critical thinking. Thank you.

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  41. Brilliant! And what lovely, personable furry family members!

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  42. After watching two of my daughters struggle through statistics, I am praying I don’t have to take it. So far, I only have college algebra classes required, but as someone with a “language arts” brain, I am NOT looking forward to them.

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