We’ve been talking quite a lot in the office recently about how few people truly understand even the basic principles behind statistical analysis, yet everyone makes frequent judgments about news reports or work issues based almost entirely on statistics. This has led to a widespread culture of thinking it’s acceptable to “massage” figures to suit wider political or commercial gains, with staff safe in the knowledge that neither their colleagues, nor the public, nor the press have the necessary level of understanding to assess what they’re reading/reporting (I include myself in that group, though I perhaps have a bit more knowledge than most after working as a database programmer in a government statistics department for 9 years). Is it any wonder that people have become so sceptical of scientific analysis when they’re constantly barraged by “reports” designed to suit a particular agenda? I wish we could go back to trusting the “man in the white coat” ;)   Here’s a great quote I saw on Slashdot today:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a famous ‘Quant,’ has long been a strong critic of the use of mathematics and statistics in the financial markets. He has been very vocal in his books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. In his article on edge.org, he says ‘My outrage is aimed at the scientist-charlatan putting society at risk using statistical methods. This is similar to iatrogenics, the study of the doctor putting the patient at risk.’

http://news.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/04/25/1858223&from=rss

Perhaps if we all had a better understanding of these things in the first place, we would be better able to spot the “scientist-charlatans” before they messed things up.

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