By Whitney Robare, Guest Contributor
What emotions come to mind when you think of statistics. You may be surprised to know many people have an unnatural fear of the topic. Think about the number of people who are stressed about the idea of rendering any type of calculation.
Research shows up to 80 percent of college students experience some form of statistics anxiety.
So many math fearful students go their entire academic career trying to dodge higher level math by choosing to study various sciences they believe to be devoid of calculations. I know this fact to be true. I was one of those people!
However, as I made my journey through an undergraduate degree and then graduate school, I found a growing reliance on statistics and statistical principles. They are a necessary evil.
Statistics is the grammar of science.
– Karl Pearson
Not a Useless Topic
Statistics, by definition, is “the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of masses of numerical data.” Relationships are prevalent in all industries. Many professionals rely directly on statistical relationships. We use statistics to make decisions, to answer questions, and to forecast.
We live in a world full of information which needs to be properly processed and analyzed. Statistics can guide how we collect data, analyze data, and how results are presented. Having a basic understanding of the underlying statistical analysis which drives our professions can make a world of difference in the workplace.
My goal with this article is to show you how statistics anxiety, or statistics phobia, is real. Statistics are not simply a useless topic, but a subject which should be embraced by all – including you.
Consider how statistics play a role in our everyday life:
- Make predictions about future events – the weather forecast on TV
- Understand the spread of a communicable disease – Covid-19 analysis is everywhere
- Study voter survey data – who will vote and who will they vote for
- Determine insurance premiums and the possibilities for claims – a special job called actuary
- Stock consumer goods at your local retailer – put the cereal where children can see Tony the Tiger
- Select the best investments – financial markets have more numbers than you can shake a stick at
- Watch a sporting event – the commentators seem to have an army of statisticians helping them report on each moment
“Most people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost; more for support than illumination.”
– Andrew Lang
Help Has Arrived
In olden days, it is understandable why statistics gave students and professionals dread. Having to memorize formulas and work through tedious calculations. Sitting through theoretical examples which lacked practical relevance. But with the introduction of statistical software, like Minitab, students and practitioners alike can now understand important concepts without losing themselves in massive details.
Students are no longer burdened with computational gymnastics and formulas.
It’s past time to stop thinking of statistics as a useless topic or too complex to use. Although the language of statisticians seems somewhat different and strange, it doesn’t mean everything is incomprehensible. Many of the terms used in statistics can be translated into plain English.
“Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary a qualification for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.”
– H.G. Wells
Let’s take a tour of a few basic statistical terms and their meanings.
- Mean is the sum of all the values in your data set divided by the number of values. If you role the dice 7 times and get 10, 2, 8, 10, 4, 6, and 9 – the total is 49 and the mean is 7. For those living normal lives, outside the world of statistics, the mean is referred to as the average. Be warned, no self-respecting statistician would ever use the word average.
- Mode is the most frequent value in a data set. For our 7 roles of the dice, we got 10 twice and all the other values just once. Our mode is 10.
- Median a data set’s middle value, found after you sort the values from low to high. Our roles of the dice gave us 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 10. The middle value, or median, is 8.
- Range is the difference between the highest and lowest values in a data set. Looking back at our dice, our high role was 10 and our low role was 2. Our range is 10 – 2 = 8.
- Normal distribution is data which follows a bell-shaped curve. We see this type of distribution all around us – heights of people, scores on a test, birth weight of babies, IQ scores, and roles of the dice.
- Random is the condition where each item, of a set, has an equal probability of being chosen. A simple random sample is chosen in such a way that every set of individuals has an equal chance to be in the selected sample. This is how the ping pong balls are supposed to be chosen for the lottery winners.
“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
– Mark Twain
Slightly More Advanced Terms
Emeril just called and said it’s time to kick it up a notch.
- Correlation is a measure which expresses the extent to which two variables are linearly related. For example, the more you study, the better your grade.
- Simple regression is examining the relationship between two variables. If a relationship exists, then you can predict the dependent variable when the independent variable is known. For example, as driving speed increases, gas mileage decreases. The relationship is not perfect, which is to say, there is not 100% correlation.
- Significance is the likelihood a relationship between two, or more, variables is caused by something other than chance. When you make decisions, based on the results of experiments you’re running, you want to make sure a relationship actually exists. If you run an experiment, with a significance level of 95%, this means you can be 95% confident the observed results are real and not an error caused by randomness. It also means there is a 5% chance you could be wrong.
- Residual is the difference between an observed data point and the expected, or estimated, value for what the data point should have been. For example, you might have a model which predicts 16 hours of study will lead to scoring 95 on a test with 100 questions. If you study for 16 hours and score 93, then the residual is 2. Not bad for an amateur statistician.
- Standard Deviation is the rock star of all statistical terms. It is a measure used to quantify the amount of variation, or dispersion, of a set of data values. To be precise, it is a measure of the variation around the mean. The mission of the improvement program, called six sigma, is to reduce variation in terms of reducing the standard deviation. The Greek letter known as “sigma” is used by statisticians to indicate standard deviation in math formulas.
Statistics are all around us. Successful professionals, in almost all fields, need to understand and use statistics.
Fear is not an option.
Start with the easy terms and get comfortable with what is relatively easy math. Your thirst for knowledge will grow and those more advanced terms will soon find their way into your work.
One day soon, you will be giving a presentation and casually mention how the standard deviation, of your data, indicates an exciting opportunity for your organization.
“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.”
– Rex Stout in Death of a Doxy
About Whitney Robare
Whitney is a military wife, mother of two, and an MBA student at Louisiana State University Shreveport. She is a travel lover, a planner of all things, and a fitness enthusiast. Her days are controlled chaos which involve coordinating her family’s busy schedules, trotting the globe on grand adventures, and studying for exams.
Whitney also works in Airport Operations Management and has done so, off and on, for the past 10 years. She earned her Bachelors Degree in Aviation Management from Hampton University and has served on their Aviation Advisory Board.
“All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile.”
– Chris Hart
Subscribe to our newsletter
Science Shows How Students Can Stop Sweating Statistics from the Association for Psychological Science (APS)
Statistics Anxiety’ is Real from ScienceDaily