Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Monday, December 19, 2011

Stats Made Ez: Why We Need Statistics!

This is the first in a series of short articles that will discuss basic stats. Learning about stats will help you think in terms of probabilities, and allow you to gain a better understanding of research data.

Statistic: 1 number that summarizes a property of a set of numbers (Osbaldiston, 2011)

One of the key reasons of why we need statistics is to be able to effectively conduct research. Without the use of statistics it would be very difficult to analyze the collected data and make decisions based on the data. Statistics give us an overview of the data and allow us to make sense of what is going on. Without statistics, in many cases, it would be extremely difficult to find meaning in the data. Statistics provides us with a tool to make an educated inference.

Most scientific and technical journals contain some form of statistics. Without an understanding of statistics, the statistical information contained in the journal will be meaningless. An understanding of basic statistics will provide you with the fundamental skills necessary to read and evaluate most results sections. The ability to extract meaning from journal articles, and the ability to evaluate research from a statistical perspective are basic skills that will increase your knowledge and understanding of the article of interest.

Gaining knowledge in the area of statistics will help you become a better-informed consumer. Of course, statistics can be used or misused. Some individuals do mislead with statistics. If you understand basic statistical concepts, you will be in a better position to evaluate the information you have been given.

In future articles will be discussing: mean, median, mode, range, standard deviation, t-tests, correlation coefficient, and many other statistical concepts.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Person-Who" Statistics

Results of scientific studies are stated in probabilistic terms. Science is not in the business of making claims of absolute certainty (refer to bead model of truth). When science describes, predicts or explains something, it is understood that the conclusion is tentative. This willingness to admit fallibility is probably one of science’s biggest strengths. In virtually every other area of knowledge acquisition, admitting fallibility is not a virtue, but a severe weakness.

Person-who statistics: situations in which well-established statistical trends are questioned because someone knows a “person who” went against the trend (Stanovich, 2007). For example, “Look at my grandpa, he is ninety years old, has been smoking since he was in thirteen, and is still healthy”, implying smoking is not bad for health. Learning to think probabilistically is an important trait that can increase one's ability to think more accurately. Person-who statistics is a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Research shows people have a difficult time thinking probabilistically. People like things stated in terms of absolute. However, many things cannot be explained in those terms, and in fact when referring to causation in everyday life we are often wrong. Determining what causes something is not as simple as we would like to think.

The conclusions drawn from scientific research are probabilistic- generalizations that are correct most of the time, but not every time. People often weight anecdotal evidence more heavily than probabilistic information. This is an error in thinking, and leads to bad decisions, and often, irrational thinking.


Stanovich, K. (2007). How To Think Straight About Psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How I became Interested In Science

Kevin Akers

It took a good deal of thinking to try and remember when and why I became interested in science. I think that it is hard to narrow it down to just one or two things. I was always a pretty good student in high school and college, and I would guess that some of my teachers probably instilled a basic interest of various science topics in me. I became interested in science primarily when I began reading on my own after I graduated instead of reading for a particular class. I found it frustrating when each week according to the news it seemed like the same food alternated between being horrible for you and being great for you. I was also frustrated when a reporter would spend thirty seconds or so attempting to describe a scientific discovery, but obviously had little idea what it meant or how it was discovered. Along with some other factors, I think I basically wanted to find out for myself how a variety of things worked and how scientists knew what they knew.

The first non-fiction books I read after college were history books. I was interested in ancient history, and in particular alternative theories about ancient history. Most of the books I read were essentially pseudoscience in historical form; they presented interesting questions that clashed with traditional history and on the surface seemed quite plausible, but in reality there was little evidence in support of their theories and a great deal against. A common idea was this: historians, archaeologists, and others refuse to consider any evidence that goes against any long-held theory simply because the theory has existed so long, and, after all, they would have to rewrite a lot of textbooks. This certainly can happen in science; every now and again an idea comes along that seems so outrageous and counter-intuitive that it is not even considered until a wealth of evidence supports it. I think I liked these kinds of books because they did sometimes raise good questions that sometimes 'serious' historians simply wouldn't consider, and it originally got me thinking of the question, how do they know what they know? It's important to not dismiss a claim automatically because it sounds outrageous, but it is equally important to not waste time fully investigating claims that have been refuted over and over again and bring no new evidence to the table. I stopped reading some of my favorite 'history' authors when I realized that their claims had been refuted by experts in the fields they were discussing, and instead of replying to the refutation the original author simply pretended that the experts had never replied.

After reading a lot of history I think the first science books I read were about astronomy. I was curious about how much ancient civilizations knew about the motion of the stars and how very little I knew. History books already had me thinking about how people knew what they knew, and I just applied the same thing to science. I think I read A Brief History of Time and then some introductory books on Einstein and relativity after that. I didn't grasp some of the concepts in them but I kept reading anyhow until I felt I got something out of them, and I think they were beneficial to my overall understanding of science topics. From there I read a lot of books on science topics that kept popping up in the news, and like I mentioned earlier, I always got the impression the reporters had very little idea what they were talking about. I read about the Big Bang Theory, stem cell research, psychology, space travel, extraterrestrial life, research methods, evolution, and other topics. Some of the topics I read about I had discussed in college, and some of them I discussed with people that were also science readers. As a part of reading a lot of different books I figured out the importance of finding authors that were knowledgeable about the subject matter and not just speculating. I think a lot of my interest in science stems from wanting to know more about something that is commonly discussed (in the news or our culture) but not really all that well-known by the majority.

Finally, I think I would be fooling myself if I didn't admit that it is simply exciting and entertaining to know something that most people don't know, or to find out that something that seems like common sense isn't true. I wouldn't say that I have an interest in science simply so I can go around correcting people all the time. The fact is, though, that people everywhere are constantly doing this exact thing only without any evidence to back them up. People are constantly telling their friends (and non-friends) that they heard this or that science related thing and the sad thing is the listener will often pass that information on, citing not evidence but their friend that heard it from a friend, etc. With a lot of topics now it is much easier for me to decide the merit of the ideas passed along to me by others. It was really exciting for me when I realized that knowing something about how scientific research is done really has a huge impact on my life. It is now much easier to tell which products at the store do absolutely nothing, which ones can be purchased for a much cheaper price that do the same thing, and what it means when I am told on the news that I am a certain percentage more likely to have this happen if I take this action. The interesting thing to me is, and I don't mean to brag too much here, that if the average person had an interest in science our legal and political systems would be a great deal improved. In our court system it seems to me that often the jurors are confused and argue about ideas that are not really controversial in the scientific community. Politicians on all sides seem to constantly find that correlation is always causation when it supports what they are saying. Wouldn't it be great if the average person could see through such nonsense? A lot of myths about a variety of topics were long ago dispelled by scientific research, and I think that the more I read about them, and about science topics in general, the more I am interested to find out what else I don't know.