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Originally posted March 31 2004 at 13:03 under General and Physics. 0 Comments. Trackbacks Disabled.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics*

Very good piece on the Risks of Quantitative Studies. We get statistics thrown at us all the time, by politicians, the press or the bloke down the pub. I’ve always remembered my statistics lecturer in my 1st year of being an undergraduate trying to instill in us how unrealiable most statistics in the press are (if only I could actually remember most of what he actually taught us). Possibly the most compelling quote from the above piece is the following:

Researchers often perform statistical analysis to determine whether numeric results are “statistically significant” By convention, they deem an outcome significant if there is less than 5% probability that it could have occurred randomly rather than signifying a true phenomenon.
This sounds reasonable, but it implies that one out of twenty “significant” results might be random if researchers rely purely on quantitative methods.

In other words one swallow does not a summer make, or one study does not a result make. The importance of repetition is often lost on the general public (as is the importance of sample size and the myriad of pitfalls the article touches on) and on the press themselves, often leading to scare mongering (just look at the triple vaccine/autism “scandle”). One result could be a complete freak. Be careful with those statistics, >90% of people don’t really understand them.

*Originally Benjamin Disraeli, not Mark Twain who merely made it a popular phrase in the US.

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This Crazy Fool

Dr Ian Scott
Croydon (and Gateshead), United Kingdom
Bullding Services Engineer (EngDesign), PhD in Physics (University of York), football fanatic (Newcastle United), open source enthusiast (mainly Mozilla)

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