Great Courses: Statistics

Our view of the world is defined by two basic methods of expressing value: quality and quantity. Simple at first blush, these two metrics have vexed the minds of Descartes, Newton, Locke and other scholars for centuries.

In college, some of your courses will measure and evaluate quantity; others will discuss and cover quality. The two are more related than you’d think though, and that’s where we encounter the field of statistics. Statistics, at its disciplinary core, is the science of understanding data. Qualitative data, which is difficult or impossible to quantify, and quantitative data are both types of information that statistics help us analyze, process and use.

The better grasp you have on statistics and statistical analysis, the more prepared you’ll be in a range of activities and situations, from playing games to doing your job. Statistical analysis is prevalent in all walks of life, and no student should graduate without a basic understanding of statistics.

When Gordon Ramsay analyzes a failing restaurant on FOX’s Kitchen Nightmares, he invariably discovers that the food costs are too high to make a profit; oftentimes the owners and chefs don’t even realize there’s a problem, much less how to fix it.

On SpikeTV’s Bar Rescue, Jon Taffer takes a look at bars going broke. He often finds that these establishments give away a shocking number of free drinks while compensating by under-pouring other orders. Not surprisingly, they have unhappy customers and escalating bills.

Marcus Lemonis crunches numbers for every company he improves on CNBC’s The Profit. He usually finds that even when people know their data, they rarely know how to use it to maintain or improve their business.

If every business owner had a handle on basic statistics, several awesome TV shows wouldn’t exist. Few realize that numbers and data aren’t just for accounting; they can help you identify inefficiencies, suggest improvements and help your bottom line. More broadly, innovative statistical analysis can help businesses ensure customer satisfaction.

Statistical data reveals broad implications that can dictate how entire organizations are run. Take the field of education as an example. Teachers use statistics to create fair tests. Students use statistical probabilities to determine what they need to study most before exams. School districts employ statistics to project how many classrooms they’ll need for seventh graders in 2019. School psychologists and nurses use statistics to ask for the resources they’ll need to help kids, while voters consider data while determining their school district’s annual budget. At every level someone is crunching numbers and using data to guide their decision-making.

This isn’t a recent development. Science fiction author H.G. Wells wrote that, “statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.” Florence Nightingale, who pioneered nursing as we know it today, took that sentiment further:

“Statistics…is the most important science in the whole world: for upon it depends the practical application of every other science and of every art; the one science essential to all political and social administration, all education, all organization based upon experience, for it only gives the results of our experience.”

Data is everywhere. If you want to navigate the world properly, you need to have a handle on statistics.

Not everyone is comfortable with math. Contrary to what you may have heard, that’s totally fine when it comes to learning basic statistics.

Your high school education equipped you with all of the math skills you need to succeed in statistics 101. Basic statistical calculations like standard deviations, probability and confidence intervals involve four-function math and algebra. More advanced statistics courses require advanced mathematics, but even if your major is creative writing or poetry, you can still handle an introductory course. You learned all the skills you’ll need by the time you finished tenth grade.

No, Eating Chocolate Does Not Help You Lose Weight

Once you have a handle on statistics and basic data analysis, the world will be your oyster. One of the cooler abilities you’ll gain is a knack for pointing out deceptive statistics, a skill that will set you apart from the general public.

John Bohannon made waves in the research community this year by demonstrating how the media’s inability to process basic statistics left them vulnerable. Bohannon published a story suggesting that eating chocolate can help you lose weight. The problem, expertly engineered by Bohannon, is that the study he designed and conducted was intentionally flawed.

In his study, Bohannon used just 16 subjects in his research trial; anyone who’s spent 5 minutes in a stats class knows that 16 of anything is too small of a sample size to reach a legitimate conclusion. He then dropped one subject altogether, and then divided the others into three groups of five each.

The control group ate a normal diet, the second group followed a low-carb diet and the third ate low-carb with the addition of a chocolate bar. He measured several factors in the participants over a short amount of time, all but guaranteeing that an odd result would develop organically. Sure enough it did: the participants in the third group happened to lose aggregate weight while they were monitored by Bohannon, and voila, eating chocolate helps you lose weight!

Bohannon published his results in a ‘pay to play’ scientific journal and the media ate it up, partially because they never bothered to read through it properly or ask an outside expert to evaluate his conclusions. It wasn’t long before the articles about a scientific study proving that eating chocolate can help people lose weight went viral.

Part of the problem was that many media members didn’t bother to investigate Bohannon’s claims, but much of it stemmed from writers and readers not knowing how to spot the flaws in Bohannon’s junk science. The media and everyone who bought Bohannon’s hoax felt foolish, and it all could have been prevented by a little bit of diligence and a basic knowledge of statistics.

Not everyone using the data around us does so responsibly. Sometimes people don’t know how to; in other situations, charlatans have incentive to mislead others with cherry picked statistics. A working knowledge of statistics protects us from buying faulty arguments in articles, political rhetoric and advertisements. One semester’s worth of study opens up a lifetime of statistical awareness.

Statistics is an accessible, relatively manageable course with plenty of resources to help you if don’t understand concepts. If you get stuck, you can find clear explanations on YouTube, or ask friends or tutors to help.

Statistical analysis is useful in every single academic discipline and virtually every job you’ll ever have (if not to your tasks specifically, it will to your organization). An understanding of basic statistics helps you make decisions about where to live, how to use your time and money and how to evaluate the information around you.

We can’t be sure of much regarding the future, but we can count on having more and more access to information. The people who can consume and digest that information properly will have a leg up in the economy. They’ll also have more choices and flexibility in many aspects of their lives.

Every college offers a basic course in statistics, and it’s an excellent class to take in your freshman year. Not only will it likely satisfy some kind of requirement in your major, but it will also serve as a prerequisite for more advanced classes in a variety of disciplines. You’ll spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars on college, and it’s worth developing a solid understanding of how data works in the modern world while you’re there. Your education, and what you’ll get out of the other great courses, depend on it.