Among the many educational reforms that I think we ought to enact in the United States, and probably throughout the world, one of the most useful would be to begin teaching all students about probability and statistics. These should be taught at a far younger age than that at which most people begin to learn them—those that ever do. Most of us don’t get any exposure to the concepts until we go to university, if we do even there. My own first real, deep exposure to probability and statistics took place when I was in medical school…and I had a significant scientific background even before then.
Why should we encourage young people to learn about such seemingly esoteric matters? Precisely because they seem so esoteric to us. Statistics are quoted with tremendous frequency in the popular press, in advertising, and in social media of all sorts, but the general public’s understanding of them is poor. This appears to be an innate human weakness, not merely a failure of education. We learn basic arithmetic with relative ease, and even the fundamentals of Newtonian physics don’t seem too unnatural when compared with most people’s intuitions about the matter. Yet in the events of everyday life, statistics predominate. Even so seemingly straightforward a relation as the ideal gas law (PV=nRT, relating the volume, temperature, and pressure of a gas) is the product of the statistical effects of innumerable molecules interacting with each other. In this case, the shorthand works well enough, because the numbers involved are so vast, but in more ordinary interactions of humans with each other and with the world, we do not have numbers large enough to produce reliable, simplified formulae. We must deal with statistics and probability. If we do not, then we will fail to deal with reality as accurately as we could, which cannot fail to have consequences, usually bad ones. As I often say (paraphrasing John Mellencamp) “When you fight reality, reality always wins.” Continue reading “Odds are we should teach probability and statistics”