WHY MATH IS the BEST WAY to MAKE SENSE of the WORLD
Many of us think we really don’t get math. Where the surprise lies is what we don’t do well is equations or formulas or literally enumerating the problem. But I would say we do more math than we think, and it’s easily improved upon without resorting to going back to school. What follows illustrates a little how and a lot why.
What do you mean?
Like, you might be interested in knowing whether taking hormones is helpful or harmful to women who are postmenopausal. So you start out with a question that’s really well-defined: Does it help or hurt? But you can’t necessarily answer that question. What you can answer is the question of whether women who take hormones whom you enroll in your study — those specific women — have an increase or decrease in, say, heart disease rates or breast cancer rates or stroke rates compared to a control group or to the general population. But that may not answer your initial question, which is: “Is that going to be the case for me? Or people like me? Or the population as a whole?”
What do you hope STATS will achieve?
Partly our goal is to help change the culture of journalism so that people recognize the importance of using quantitative arguments and thinking about quantitative issues before they come to conclusions. That way, they’re coming to conclusions that are supported by science rather than using a study to further their own agenda — which is something scientists do too; they may push a certain interpretation of something. We want to arm journalists with a certain amount of rigor in their thinking so they can challenge a scientist who might say, “Well, you just don’t understand my sophisticated statistic.” There’s a lot of value in giving reporters the tools to develop their sense of quantitative skepticism so that they’re not just bullied.
You argue that statistical literacy gives citizens a kind of power. What do you mean?
What I mean is that if we don’t have the ability to process quantitative information, we can often make decisions that are more based on our beliefs and our fears than based on reality. On an individual level, if we have the ability to think quantitatively, we can make better decisions about our own health, about our own choices with regard to risk, about our own lifestyles. It’s very empowering to not be scared or bullied into doing things one way or another.