Statistics for Practical People

Part I - What Statistics is All About
Published April 1988

Statistics is a pain. Every normal person who takes it knows that it is (almost always) badly taught, unreadable, and even when you follow the idea, you can't imagine where to apply it. It's hard to string the ideas together. The assumptions are never true in real life, and that seems to fill instructors with horror. If it bothers the instructors, shouldn't it bother you?

Statistical ideas are like rabbits. They are often used as the show piece of magic acts. They are simple animals - but not easy to grab hold of (particularly if you're dropped in a whole field of them) and some don't prove worth the effort. The minute you grab a few they seem to multiply and then things are back out of control again. It's a sad story. Why would anybody bother?

The reason to learn this stuff is that it is terribly useful in very practical ways. The difference between 50 and 100 plots may not seem important to someone in a warm, dry office, but it matters to somebody on a wet, cold, 60% slope. The reason to understand this stuff is that it can save real money, real time and real sweat

There is also a lot of good news about statistics:

  • Normal people can learn it, with little math background or aptitude. It's true that many statisticians are from mathematics backgrounds, but it isn't necessary or useful for most applications. Math people aren't smart, they are just strangely wired and handle equations easily. They are like musicians who have "perfect pitch". It's a knack many of them are born with, but it doesn't mean they understand math - it's just easy for them to do the mechanics. It often means that they can't explain how to use statistics to normal (often smarter) people. How could you "explain" how to have perfect pitch? Just because you can do it easily doesn't mean you can do it usefully. Ordinary people who can see statistics in perspective are often the most innovative and credible users of statistics.Next Column
  • .

  • Statistics has little to do with math. There are some exact probabilities that are used, and you may need math to calculate them, but this is a detail. All the powerful ideas are logical ideas. Stats is like legal evidence - the idea is to examine pertinent, accurate evidence and to weigh its value. Researchers spend lots of time in the math details, but that end of the work is not where the important ideas lie. Calculators now do all the math, you only have to work with the logical ideas.
  • There are only a few important ideas, even though there are a mass of names and symbols swirling around them. There are no more than a handful of important equations too, they just have lots of special forms. I think we can straighten that out with reasonable effort.
  • Your friends will like you anyway, even if you do know how to do statistics. Such people are even considered useful at times. A chain saw is a lot more powerful tool than an axe, so it's worth the effort to learn how it works and how to use it safely. Besides, statistics is a normal procedure many of you are expected to know how to use. Just like driving a truck, it's a necessary part of doing the job. Like using a chain saw or juggling, it's a matter of practice and the right approach. There are plenty of ways to ease the pain. Over the next few issues, we will be dealing with some of the practical aspects of statistics like:
    • How to get statistical help (instead of just being a victim).
    • "Distributions" and why most of them don't matter.
    • Averages, Standard Deviation, Standard Error (and all those confusing terms).
    • Sample sizes and sampling error.
    • Sample layout.
    • We will also write up some advice on choosing calculators to use and personal computer programs that are really useful and easy to get. Don't be intimidated! Look at some of the people that do this work - if they can learn it, so can you.

  • Return to Home
    Back to Contents