Friday, May 6, 2016

How Do We Teach Statistics?

We use statistics as a buzzword to validate our statements and give weight to our claims. Unfortunately, we grow up with a healthy dose of skepticism - 76% of all statistics are made up, right?
Statistics should be the one quantity we believe to be valid and unbiased, but as cynical creatures we view them as a tool for manipulation rather than information. This issue is compounded by the complexity of correct statistics. The formulas and theories are difficult and not easily translated into a standard education. Additionally, there are so many factors that are involved in choosing the correct statistical approach to analyze the situation.

This leaves us with an important question. How do we teach statistics? Teachers need to first overcome the general dislike the field faces, then they must approach the problem of complexity and the variety of options for analyses.

General teaching theory hinges upon using building blocks to slowly introduce concepts to students and guide them towards understanding the more complicated lessons. This is great, but catching a graduate student and teaching them statistics feels like it is too late to start this process. We are capable of learning the complicated aspects (mostly) and we have a desire and a need to understand how statistics work for the benefit of our research and publish-ability. We aren’t the (main) issue when it comes to teaching statistics.

<i>The Cartoon Introduction to Statistics</i> by Alan Dabney & Grady KleinWhat about the general population? They are the common enemy we face. As scientists, we communicate our results with statistics to assure people of the validity of our claims. Yet we face the general skepticism and dislike that people associate with things they do not understand. The press misrepresents our studies in worms as the new cures for cancer, and the public is disappointed with “how little” we have really done. Our funding is never sufficient, and our esoteric communication methods do not aid our cause. We cannot expect the general population to gain an in depth grasp of our science, but we should fight for them to look to science as a credible source. One method for this is to instill a basic understanding of statistics. A real understanding and trust, not skepticism and bare grasping of the subject.

I started thinking about this when I came upon this book called The Cartoon Introduction to Statistics. Preview pages and descriptions of the book show a method in which statistics can be communicated without being misrepresented. The book seems to build on basics with a “Math Cave” containing more complex equations and concepts. This seems like an excellent marriage between simplifying a complex topic for a general audience while still providing depth and breadth of knowledge to help people understand a necessary field.

There is no reason that we shouldn’t all have a basic understanding of statistics. The question of “How do we teach statistics” encompasses more than just the teaching method, but also the timing and the reach of how we teach it. Statistics should be a subject covered as one of the essentials of our mathematical education. This small step will aid the reach and understanding of science, and help reinforce the effect of good statistical analysis for making an argument.

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