We have to admit that, usually, if we are asked to state a fascinating field of knowledge, statistics never ever springs to mind.
And it is any wonder – we already have enough problems with mathematics, because it is not so easy to feel at ease with numbers. And statistics, as the data visualization expert Alan Smith says in this TED Talk, “is the part of mathematics that even mathematicians don’t particularly like, because whereas the rest of maths is all about precision and certainty, statistics is almost the reverse of that”.
So why should we take any interest in this particular field? Because, as Smith says, statistics are “the science of us”. The etymology of the word indicates the science of processing data on the country or community in which we live. But that is not all. Statistics is a key instrument in disciplines like demography, physics, the economy and biomedical research. And if we look at the quantitative measure of social phenomena, statistics are about us as a group, and not as individuals.
In his talk, Smith quotes a series of other cases where our common perception of reality is resoundingly contradicted by statistical data.
It is amazing to see how many of our convictions can be contradicted by a simple statistical investigation: for example, it was discovered in Japan that people thought that 56 Japanese out of one hundred lived in rural areas, when official data reported a mere 7%.
But how do we explain the phenomenon of our misconceptions?
The winner of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences Daniel Kahneman spent years investigating people’s “awful statistical intuition”, which he put down to a series of cognitive traps, reaching the conclusion that “We can be blind to the obvious (and have wrong numbers), but we can also be blind to our own blindness”. In fact, Smith explains that we do not need to have an outstanding ability with numbers to be fascinated by them. In fact, all statistical analyses are about very complex human situations (large groups of individuals) and, in addition to pointing us in the right direction in situations of uncertainty, can help us to reverse many prejudices, putting us in a position to assess and make better decisions.
And remember: “statistics are at their most powerful when they surprise us”.