Monday, February 21, 2011

Math: The Stats Ma'am... Just the Stats

Look... I know some people don't like math. I know some people struggled with it in school and don't see the point of advanced math. I also know I was one of those kids who really liked math and to whom it all made sense. Until I got derailed early in university (but I digress).

One branch of mathematics is rising to a new found prominence - statistics. Statistics is incredibly powerful for two different reasons.

First it allows us interpret information about large groups (people, cars, planets, etc) by looking at a small sample of the things we're looking at. You don't have to ask everyone in a country how they'll vote to run an opinion poll - though I do still think we should all get our individual votes counted in the election. Statistics tells you how to find the group properly (so as not to end up with a biased result), tells you how to ask the questions, and tells you how to interpret the results. It even can tell you how accurate the results of the sampling are.

Secondly statistics allows you to understand what's behind numbers. How to pluck information and meaning out of piles and piles of information. With computers we have more information than every. In many cases businesses and governments don't have to worry about sampling the data since the computers can look at it all. Learning about what the information can tell us is very important. Especially when there is so much information going around.

If you want a light hearted but serious look at the power and uses of statistics then you should look no further than Hans Rosling's program on the BBC The Joy of Stats. Hans Rosling is a professor of International Health and Director of the Gapminder Foundation - which is hosting the Joy of Stats and other videos. Hans burst onto the scene with several celebrated TED talks. He's a fantastic public speaker. The same page that holds the Joy of Stats also links to some of his other videos.

Poke around and see how modern stats can change how you think. Hans Rosling will make you reconsider the idea of the third world. He'll make you change your mind on population growth and give you new insights into HIV and other diseases. He may even make you think that statistics is sexy.

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