EXPERT OPINION: Statistics – scary, stupendous or both? UP stats expert weighs in

Posted on October 29, 2021

In my experience, more often than not, “statistics” is a word that elicits an exasperated sigh, a severe frown or a furious headshake. Remarks like “Why would you do that?” or “I was just never a maths person at school” usually follow these reactions.

I appreciate the latter statement: many of our calculus (or calculus adjacent) encounters at school or university – for example maths and, consequently, stats – are headscratcher experiences that leave behind a trail of confusion.

However, the analytical sciences, and statistics in particular, form an integral part of everyday life. The terms “machine learning”, “artificial intelligence” and “data science” are also casually thrown into conversations, headlines and Google Ads. This often has the effect of fuelling the subject’s sometimes scary demeanour, when, in fact, it can offer relief in understanding, appreciating and improving the world around us. It is also worth noting that the definition or use of the term “statistics” does not stop at reported percentages in the media, but consists of a broad field of various mathematical- and data-driven techniques and methodology.

Statistics as data science

These data-driven techniques demand that we – as users, producers and consumers of large amounts of data – be critical thinkers of numbers, and use numbers to reveal and project truths. “Data science” has become a strong term in the media together with “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence”, and none of these would be what they are if statistics was not a cornerstone of their foundation.

Think of the amount of data you generate from the time you get up in the morning – where you swiped your bank card, which cellphone tower picked up your phone signal and what Netflix is planning to interest you in next based on what you watched last night. It’s unsurprising that this massive amount of data is mined, analysed and forecasted statistically. This is scary yet simultaneously stupendous for the intense amount of computational and statistical power that is leveraged in real time to achieve this. There is a vital science behind this data, and it’s all probably statistical too.

Statistics at the intersection of hard and soft skills

In a more studious sense, studying and/or appreciating statistics equips us with essential hard skills. These are broadly considered to be the abilities that enable you to be job-ready and productive: technical skills (particularly specialised knowledge in a specific field like workflow development, multivariate analysis, regression and troubleshooting); analytical skills (data mining, data presentation and reporting); presentation skills (persuasion and visual communication); and writing skills (copywriting, editing and creative writing). These directly encompass statistics in that it connects the dots by using data to drive decision-making aspects not only in an industry/business sense, but also in your personal life.

Expertise in statistics also requires one to have soft skills like teamwork, integrity, problem-solving and adaptability.

Good statistics and good statisticians rely heavily on both these skill spheres to produce reliable and blended information and individuals for industry and for ourselves – now that sounds stupendous!

Statistics as clues (we’re all daily data detectives)

We are all constantly looking for a clue or reason as to why we’re doing something or are about to do something. We may wonder why a newspaper headline seems too good to be true or whether we will make a green traffic light in time. In both these cases, we are looking for clues to guide us in order to make an informed decision on whether our hunch, or hypothesis, is plausible or not.

The minute you wonder whether you’ll make a green light in time, you begin gathering evidence: how fast am I driving; how far away am I from the traffic light? Immediately, we convert this information into an intuition in order to arrive at a decision.

In an information sense, to combat the deluge of fake news, we may ask ourselves, “Is the person tweeting this a reliable source of information; does this data make intuitive sense; and if not, what could be a fair motivation?” We’re walking around with magnifying glasses in our hands throughout the day, spying for data that will inform our next move, our next piece of information and our next major life decision. If that’s not reflective of society’s statistical disposition, then I don’t know what is…

“The numbers don’t lie” is a phrase we often hear – but, in fact, they sometimes do and that is worrying. It’s essential for us not to forsake our intuition and to trust in reliable, fact-checked sources to slow down the progress of our world.

On World Statistics Day, this theme was highlighted: “Connecting the world with data we can trust” – and even more so, connecting the world with subsequent informed and ethical decisions that govern our future. Statistics: scary or stupendous? I’d say it’s both, but liberate yourself to be biased towards the latter.

Dr Johan Ferreira is a senior lecturer in the Department of Statistics at the University of Pretoria.

This piece was written to celebrate World Statistics Day on 20 October.

- Author Dr Johan Ferreira
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2022. All rights reserved.

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