Virtually every student of the behavioral sciences takes some form of statistics class. This is because statistics is how we communicate in science. It serves as the link between a research idea and usable conclusions. Without statistics, we would be unable to interpret the massive amounts of information contained in data. Even small datasets contain hundreds – if not thousands – of numbers, each representing a specific observation we made. Without a way to organize these numbers into a more interpretable form, we would be lost, having wasted the time and money of our participants, ourselves, and the communities we serve.
Beyond its use in science, however, there is a more personal reason to study statistics. Like most people, you probably feel that it is important to “take control of your life.” But what does this mean? Partly, it means being able to properly evaluate the data and claims that bombard you every day. If you cannot distinguish good from faulty reasoning, then you are vulnerable to manipulation and to decisions that are not in your best interest. Statistics provides tools that you need in order to react intelligently to information you hear or read. In this sense, statistics is one of the most important things that you can study.
To be more specific, here are some claims that we have heard on several occasions. (We are not saying that each one of these claims is true!)
- \(4\) out of \(5\) dentists recommend Dentine.
- Almost \(85\%\) of lung cancers in men and \(45\%\) in women are tobacco-related.
- Condoms are effective \(94\%\) of the time.
- People tend to be more persuasive when they look others directly in the eye and speak loudly and quickly.
- Women make \(75\) cents to every dollar a man makes when they work the same job.
- A surprising new study shows that eating egg whites can increase one's life span.
- People predict that it is very unlikely there will ever be another baseball player with a batting average over \(400\).
- There is an \(80\%\) chance that in a room full of \(30\) people that at least two people will share the same birthday.
- \(79.48\%\) of all statistics are made up on the spot.
All of these claims are statistical in character. We suspect that some of them sound familiar; if not, we bet that you have heard other claims like them. Notice how diverse the examples are. They come from psychology, health, law, sports, business, etc. Indeed, data and data interpretation show up in discourse from virtually every facet of contemporary life.
Statistics are often presented in an effort to add credibility to an argument or advice. You can see this by paying attention to television advertisements. Many of the numbers thrown about in this way do not represent careful statistical analysis. They can be misleading and push you into decisions that you might find cause to regret. For these reasons, learning about statistics is a long step towards taking control of your life. (It is not, of course, the only step needed for this purpose.) The purpose of this course, beyond preparing you for a career in psychology, is to help you learn statistical essentials. It will make you into an intelligent consumer of statistical claims.
You can take the first step right away. To be an intelligent consumer of statistics, your first reflex must be to question the statistics that you encounter. The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is quoted by Mark Twain as having said, “There are three kinds of lies -- lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This quote reminds us why it is so important to understand statistics. So let us invite you to reform your statistical habits from now on. No longer will you blindly accept numbers or findings. Instead, you will begin to think about the numbers, their sources, and most importantly, the procedures used to generate them.
The above section puts an emphasis on defending ourselves against fraudulent claims wrapped up as statistics, but let us look at a more positive note. Just as important as detecting the deceptive use of statistics is the appreciation of the proper use of statistics. You must also learn to recognize statistical evidence that supports a stated conclusion. Statistics are all around you, sometimes used well, sometimes not. We must learn how to distinguish the two cases. In doing so, statistics will likely be the course you use most in your day to day life, even if you do not ever run a formal analysis again.
Contributors and Attributions
Foster et al. (University of Missouri-St. Louis, Rice University, & University of Houston, Downtown Campus)