Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sample surveys focus our explanations on individuals' characteristics

Certain research designs—especially, sample surveys of individuals—have an often unrecognized tendency to focus explanations on the characteristics of individuals in contrast to the structure of circumstances and opportunities that broader social forces make available to some groups of individuals. This distinction—often referred to as the difference between agency and structure—runs deeply throughout the history of the social sciences and policy research. The tension between these two perspectives is unlikely to be resolved. It is nonetheless important to be aware of the possibility that different research designs can unwittingly cause us to fall into one of these two camps, just as the fashion of a discipline at any point in time can lead us to explore some questions rather than others.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Statistics as a foreign language

Pick up any textbook in statistics, and you will soon realize why statistics seem so foreign. It is. The language for many is not only new but mysterious. This is so for several reasons. The language of statistics is:

¨ paradoxically precise yet probabilistic;
¨ slightly askew from everyday usage and downright misleading in some instances;
¨ replete with instances in which the same word takes on substantially different meanings, even in a statistical context; and
¨ replete with double negatives (e.g., rejecting the null hypothesis is one of my favorites).

All these characteristics get in the way of understanding and communicating statistics, but they help make a decent wage for the statisticians who invent the jargon, use it, and criticize others’ misuse of it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dynamic statistical graphs

For a fascinating example of dynamic statistical graphs, go to:


It's easier to lie without statistics

Mark Twain attributes this quote to the British statesman Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” An erudite American statistician, Fred Mosteller, quipped in response: “It’s easy to lie with statistics, but it’s easier to lie without them.” Considerable research in cognitive psychology and decision theory has demonstrated repeatedly that our guts, hearts, and heads play tricks on us that good data and statistics can help protect us from.