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Calling on Statistics

Why we might want to rethink our math education priorities

February 12, 2010

Earlier this month, the medical journal Lancet made the rare move to retract a pivotal 1998 study that linked vaccinations with autism.  Despite years of solid evidence that scientists cannot find such a connection, anti-vaccination advocates would have you believe otherwise. You want to do what’s best for your kids ― but how can you really know whom to trust?

For starters, take a statistics class.

If you did, you could better understand what what comprises a well-designed study (double-blind, placebo-controlled, large sample sizes) and also what types of results are truly meaningful. You could look at the data and determine yourself how much faith you have in the results of any treatment study.

Math professor Arthur Benjamin even thinks schools should prioritize statistics education over calculus.  I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, I’ve called upon my statistics education multiple times today, whereas I don’t remember when I last calculated the derivative of a function.

So go ― do yourself a favor and figure out standard deviations and p-values.  You’d be surprised how much they might help you through life.

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About the Author

A Bay Area native, Alex Liu studied toxicology at the University of California, Berkeley and then spent three years developing oncology medication at Genentech. Currently attending New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, he hopes to bridge the gap between science and public policy. He’s interned with NOVA scienceNOW and CNN’s medical unit, and loves working on all things video. In his free time he enjoys powering through seasons of television shows, traveling, rooting for Oakland sports teams, and stepping out onto the dance floor. You can visit his personal website and follow him on Twitter.

Discussion

1 Comment

Lisa Garbern says:

I couldn’t agree more. I think it should be required that all journalists take statistics too and not just science journalists. One pet peeve I have is when an average is given without the standard deviation. The average alone is inadequate.

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