Coffee Break Series: Perceptions of Statistics

Coffee Break IconWhen consulting statistician Margaret Menninger shared with us “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next,” I read the article voraciously and immediately began sharing it.  I have always enjoyed numbers and the ability to use statistics to reveal patterns and trends.  However, I know that others are not as enamored with statistics as I am.  My perception, though, was that statistical adversaries were often propelled by lack of confidence in their own mathematical understanding and abilities.  The idea of statistics as “insulting or arrogant” for reasons including “reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages,” had not fully resonated with me until reading this article.  From my perspective, stats and their utilization by the Census Bureau and other institutions is democratizing.  Reading this article made me think about other themes in my recent work:

  • Trying new methods to communicate statistical results clearly, accessibly, and accurately
  • Working with the National Art Education Association’s mixed methods working group, which advocate for research designs that include complementary quantitative and qualitative data
  • Preparing for an upcoming roundtable on methodological pitfalls at the Visitor Studies Association that was inspired by musings over polling errors resulting in the “post-truth” political climate

Maybe statistics don’t factor into your life as regularly as they do mine, so I leave you with the author’s concluding comment, which I think speaks to why this issue matters to everyone:

“A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of liberalism, indeed of Enlightenment. The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of politics. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.”

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