Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The place of statistics

The word "statistics" can mean a number or a big batch of them, as in "Here are the statistics on the recent deer hunt".  Usually, big batches of numbers are not considered very interesting or exciting but if they are about your favorite player or team or business, they might be.  Another meaning of the word, though, is the subject of established methods of analyzing numerical data to reveal hidden patterns and meaning.  Basic statistical methods are often considered an important tool for research and are frequently required in graduate school prior to writing a master's thesis or doctoral dissertation.  This second meaning of a subject in which one needs to pass a course teaching the methods is the meaning that makes many ex-students grimace in pain when they hear the word mentioned.

It probably used to be the case that advanced degrees in some subjects did not include required courses in statistics but many do now.  History, for instance, can use statistics to analyze societies and practices.  Biblical scholarship might use methods of statistical analysis.  Many humanities subjects such as philosophy and languages might use statistics to support an idea or attack one.

In the world of colleges and universities, having a PhD degree is often considered a basic requirement for employment and/or respectability.  Getting a PhD degree very often requires one or more courses in statistics, which is considered a tool, much as literacy in one or more languages beyond one's native tongue was, and sometimes still is.

About 1900, doing statistical analysis meant a great deal of mental calculation and pencil pushing.  Statisticians and related types of workers were a major component of the group pushing for development of modern computers.  Today, modern statistical software packages are often required learning on the way to the doctorate. The package known as SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences), renamed PASW (Predictive Analytic Software), is probably the leader over the years as reasonably convenient and affordable but there are several competing products.

I think it is sad that alert, intelligent, valuable people may be prevented from getting positions of power and influence because of a deep fear of statistics.  It and other math-related subjects have been held to be for brainy types only and not learnable by the ordinary person.  It turns out that even if you are a math wizard, you still have to show that your dissertation data was analyzed by a respectable stat package.  The subject can indeed be mastered by anyone, especially in the applicable, useable form most grad students need, unless they are going to be full-fledged statisticians.

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