Today we have achieved a level of access to information that is far above and beyond anything experienced before in human history. The Internet has become an incredibly vast repository of all areas of human knowledge, and it’s all available simply for the asking. All you must do is type in the information you want to search for, hit enter, and within seconds you are presented with thousands of results.
It’s amazing, it’s unprecedented, and as a society, we’re still catching up with it’s implications.
Thinking critically about information in general, and statistics in particular, has always been an important skill. But in today’s society where information of all sorts assaults us from every corner, it’s absolutely critical. And the sad fact is that we’re not preparing our children to be able to make sense of it all.
An understanding of statistics should be taught to children at least as early as secondary school, and perhaps even earlier. It does not need to be overly technical at first. At the college level, courses in statistics are taught with an eye towards calculating and memorizing complex mathematical formulas. This kind of knowledge is important, but it leaves a lot of the basics of understanding statistics unsaid. These basics can not only help students prepare for more advanced courses in statistics, but will also help them make better sense of the world around them.
With just some basic knowledge, students can start to ask questions and dissect data in order to gain a fuller understanding of what is being said. How many times, after all, do debates over issues break down into both sides throwing competing statistics at one another? Is there not a way, after all, to improve the quality of these discussions? Can we not break down each piece of information further and analyse them in a way that provokes a deeper discussion rather than the dead end of competing diametrically opposite claims and counter claims? An understanding of statistics can provide the solution.
In the late 90s, when I was in college, I heard of a professor who refused to let his students use the Internet to research their projects. I was very glad not to have this professor, as the Internet was almost my sole resource for any research project. The reason this professor gave for his policy was that the Internet was an unreliable source of information.
Of course, he had a point. And while I would point out that people can and have written books containing all sorts of nonsense, I’ve got to admit that the Internet makes it far easier for just about anybody to pontificate on the most ridiculous of topics.
On the other hand, shouldn’t we admit that there are methods we can use to make sure that the information we find online is reliable? Some websites are, of course, more reliable than others. And often the contrast between a reliable piece of information and fabricated or distorted data is obvious. Why can’t we let the information and their sources speak for themselves?
On further reflection, the reason becomes clear. The reason that the professor refused to let his students use the Internet for research was not because the Internet is too unreliable to get reliable data from. It isn’t. The problem is that students are not well trained in the skills necessary to separate the unreliable from the reliable data.
He was not a professor of statistics or critical thinking. It wasn’t his job to teach the students how to properly do research on the Internet and choose the most reliable information possible. He knew that most of the books in the college library were reliable and more than adequate for the task, even if using them was more cumbersome.
Without a firm grasp of how to separate the informational wheat from the chaff (which an understanding of statistics can help supply), students are as likely to use resources such as the webpages of the National Institute of Health as they are, say, Bob’s Webpage of Health Tips.
The deficit of such skills was revealed quite clearly in a 2006 study by Donald Leu of the University of Connecticut. Leu asked a group of seventh graders to read a parody website asking readers to safe the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. A whopping 96% of the students believed that the site was real and said that they would recommend the website to another class researching endangered species. Even after being told that the website was a hoax, most students were unable to find the clues that would have told them so.
It’s important to note that the clues that should have told the students they were dealing with a fake website were fairly blatant. Readers were told that one of the reasons the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was in danger was because of predation by sasquatch. They were invited to join conservation groups such as Greenpeas. And they were advised that they could donate money directly to the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopuses by going into the forest, holding out a one dollar bill, and waiting for an octopus to come down and grab it.
What a basic class in statistics can teach our children is a firm understanding of how data is gathered, compiled, and interpreted. Statistics can teach a student that information doesn’t come in small nuggets of absolute fact, but instead that it is comprised of countless decisions that humans have made on how to find and understand data on the world around them. Even without getting too complicated, a course in statistics can teach children to dissect and ask questions about the constant deluge of information around them.
And, of course, secondary school statistics courses will gradually bring in more complex formula based calculations. Having the basic understanding of how data is put together and understood, students will have a far richer understanding of these complex mathematical formulas. And they will be far better prepared for college level courses in statistics.
And most importantly, an earlier education in statistics can help our children become more knowledgeable world citizens and more critical consumers of information. These skills are so absolutely necessary in today’s world. If we can teach them to our children in secondary school, perhaps we can usher in a more savvy generation and improve the quality of the public discussion for both sides in any public debate.