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Statistical Literacy

September 23, 2010

If I could choose one subject to force everyone to become literate in, it’d be statistics, specifically around probability and randomness.  Notice I didn’t say that people should learn  statistics.  People have done that.  They memorized facts and formulas long enough to pass a course, but most people are not literate in it.  They continually fall prey to basic errors any imagegood professor warns students of.  So I thought I’d toss out a couple of things to get your juices flowing around statistical literacy. 

The first entry in this is a quick TED talk that lasts 3 minutes from Arthur Benjamin on a formula for changing math education.  I’m linking his talk here just to wet the pallet. 

The next is a very old book in technical terms but still very applicable, It’s titled “How to Lie With Statistics” by Darrell Huff.  It’s a relatively short book, and easily consumable.  Coming in at under $10, it’s something that everyone should have on their bookshelf.  I was amazed at how much advertising and sales tactics still leverage the techniques listed in this book.  It is an excellent step towards statistical literacy.

Next was the impetus for this post, I found a link to the Statistics Policy Archive over at the Parliament’s website.  For example the 7 page guide on Uncertainty and Risk has this little nugget about estimation, “At the very least a range acknowledges there is some uncertainty associated with the quantity in question.”  I’d like some coworkers to understand that statement.  Doing things like reducing resources for a volatile project to a single number drives me stinkin’ nuts.  Keep in mind that these appear to be written towards policy makers in the parliament who need a primer on statistics.  I’m still making may way through these docs.

Last point of reference is one of the best books I’ve ever read, “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” by Leonard Mladinow.  Not only does he have a light and easy writing style, he defines probability by describing the lack of probability: randomness.  Aside from being an excellent geek-out topic, randomness and probability are part of every daily task and decision we make.  This book takes the reader two steps back and then three steps forward. 

I bring all of this up because probability, randomness and statistics are so integrated into daily life, and are especially prevalent in I.T. and security.  As we talk about security controls, risks and improving the world we’re talking probability.  When we architect a solution, code up an application, audit a system we are surrounded by probabilities.  Becoming literate in statistics and probabilities is something I’d like to see more of because I think that would improve every aspect of our profession more than anything else at this point.

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  1. September 23, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    As a lover of statistics and someone who wishes to understand it more deeply, I was very interested in hearing the speakers view on stats as the peak of our math pyramid. But I find myself baffeled as to how one would implement that.

    I also think How to Lie with Statistics is a great book. I do have a big problem with a lot of the people that have read it though. It seems that whenever I talk about stats and probability in the context of IT Risk and Security someone always brings that book up as a way to argue that pursuing real numbers is a fools errand that is no better than someone’s gut instict. Because I can bend stats to say whatever I want. Of course I always counter that if I want to intentionally lie to you I dont need statistics for that.

    Great list of links.

  2. Chris Hayes
    September 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Great post Jay!

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