Placebo, risk and statistical literacy

Image Credit: Anon

Statistics has really had its name dragged through the mud over the years. But is it to blame? We are in daily contact with statistics through the TV, the press and the web and there are few on the planet who have not heard the quip “lies, damned lies and statistics”. Some will even quote Anscombe’s quartet as proof!

Image Credit: Michael Taylor

But, is it us who are the statistically-illiterate ones? Ask any statistician and they’ll tell you, “show me the raw data and I’ll show the lie”. Honest number-crunchers have been making a lot of noise lately with revelations like Alexander Dewdney’s 200% of Nothing, John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy and A mathematician reads the newspaper, Gerd Gigernzer’s Calculated risks, Howard Wainer’s Graphic discovery or Joel Best’s Stat-spotting. It appears that it’s the fudging-fibbers, cherry-pickers and grizzly graph-plotters that we are letting pull the wool over our eyes. We generally have good instincts when it comes to understanding things like placebo but our perception of risk is, more often than not, on really shaky ground and stops us flying abroad, playing golf in the rain, supporting fusion energy, or leaving the roulette table after a string of wins.

Image Credit: Michael Taylor

It’s time we all get mathematically tooled-up before heading out on the information highway. Treat yourself to a trip to the Statistical Literacy project. Some of us may like the adrenaline that comes with shocking coincidences and prefer to take cover behind the old saying “ignorance is bliss”, but don’t be surprised the next time your return home in the dark and it takes you 5 attempts to unlock the front door when you have only 3 keys on your key-ring!

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