Monthly Archives: May 2013

Statistics is Hard! ?

First, full disclaimer: I am a university professor that teaches, among other things, statistics, algebra, and critical thinking. I have a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics/computer science, masters in computer science/applied mathematics, and an MBA. I have had four statistics classes, two probability classes and may other classes that could be leveraged in to solving statistics related problems.

So when I say statistics is not hard, you will say, “Yeah, right! Look at your background! Of course you can say that!”

And my response is: it really is not that difficult. Tedious, nit-picky, and time consuming, most definitely. I will get to my rationale in a moment.

So, why do people find it hard? Well, speaking as a student that once had none of those classes, I mentioned; I would say the first reason is bad P.R. (#1) How many times have you heard, “Stats was brutal!” Or “Worst class I ever took!” In addition, usually followed with “I don’t understand why stats is in my degree. I’ll never use it in the field.” (#2a) I see a lot of heads nodding in agreement out there.

And let me guess, it was brutal. I spent a lot of thought on this one, and believe the answer is a self-fulfilled prophecy. If you think it will be hard, then it probably will be.

Next up, why is it in your degree program? Well the direct answer is program accreditation. Certain things need to be in a degree program before it will be accredited and considered a viable degree. The background for this varies, but in the math world, well, we train the statisticians. In the business world, businesses have required it of business schools because they require that a businessperson be able to read a study and understand it. Not necessarily do it, but understand it. Marketing, sales, and finance all use research to try to understand and predict business trends. To understand what consumers will want and do in the present and near future.

So some old fogies who came before you decided this for you, true. Let’s then hope that they do understand what you will need, not necessarily right out of school, but in the not too distant future.

Next reason: Those damn variables! (#3) Math phoebes rejoice! It has to be hard since there are so many variables and subscripts to make a mess of things. And to make matters worse we throw in Greek letters to make it even more confusing! And if I can’t find ‘x’ how the H… am I supposed to figure out how to deal with these Greek letters? Moo? What is that? A letter or a cow? Sigma? Isn’t that a business process improvement program?

The last big reason? It is not relevant to anything in my life! (#2b) This is related to the “Why is it in my program?” After all, who does stats in day-to-day life?

Have I pretty much covered it? Do I hear an “Amen” out there?

So, we have four reasons that we think stats is hard, and we see one has nothing to do with us, but outside forces that we can’t change in the near future. Leaving us with three reasons and one excuse.

Let’s rewind the clock to the early ‘80s, to when I was in college, and the only stats I knew was some basic charting and graphing, mean (average) and median (middle number). And the only average I really cared about was my GPA.

I am a new math major, and I find out that I had not one, but two stats classes! Moreover, even the math majors I talked to said it was brutal! Shoot me now, please! Spare me this tribulation.

So, I finally take my first stats class, and guess what? It was brutal! For the first half of the semester, it kicked my proverbial butt! Then it dawned on me, it was not hard, but nit-picky! In addition, the way the calculations were demonstrated took up a lot of space, and required you to be very careful in your “book-keeping” to be sure you did not make a mistake.

From that point forward, it much of statistics got much easier. I wish I could say that this epiphany made me a stats superstar and I got the ‘A’ in the end, but I am afraid not. Because of the first half dragging me down, and taking a bit of time to figure out how to handle the “book keeping”, I would say I was mediocre by the end of the first class, but it was not brutal any more. Then it dawned on me, a difficult class was only truly difficult because of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think it will be hard, then it probably will be!

Before I move on, I have some questions for my audience: How many things can you do, that others think are difficult? If they said it was difficult, would you believe them? Why not? Isn’t that what you did about stats? Or maybe the hard part is the getting off the ground phase, but if you get that, then maybe the rest is not so bad?

So, to the students out there: Why should you believe something you do not know is difficult just because someone said it was? And why do you let it stop you? If you listened to everyone that said something was hard, you probably would not have learned to walk, ride a bike, drive, play poker, scuba dive, martial arts, or any of a million things that we all do, and enjoy. Now there is not to say there may be a bit of a challenge to learning something, but is that not half the fun? Doing something someone else looks up to you as an expert is pretty cool, ain’t it?

So why let reason #1 stop you? In anything? I do not know about you, but I am working on my last Ham Radio license. It is tough, in that, there is a lot of memorization, and I am not good at memorizing. Nevertheless, I am of the mind, come June 8th, I will have my license. I just have to put in the time and effort to study and pass. Hard? Well, if you consider making commitment to achieve a goal hard, then yes, it is. Is it hard to the point of being overly difficult and a barrier to success? No.

So reason #1 is all about not assessing for yourself, not going in with an open mind and looking at what you need to do. Better to believe others that may not be as smart, clever, or talented as you are; and use that as an excuse for not succeeding. Worse yet, using it as an excuse for being lazy. Yes, lazy. Let other think for you, and it is not your fault. I will say it now: WUSS!

Have I done so? To my chagrin, yes. There are areas of life, career, and hobbies I regret that I could have been so much further along than I am. And all I can say is: It was MY fault. I listened to others failures and assumed they would be my failures as well. Thank goodness, I have not listened in many other areas!

Let’s look at those variables, reason #3: You may say, “I had problems figuring out what to solve for and how.” On this one, I have to cry, “FOUL!”

If you looked in to things a bit, you would find that this is not algebra. There are very few cases of having to solve an equation. Most of stats is calculations not more advanced then arithmetic! Add, subtract, multiply, and divide! Repetitive? Yes. Tedious? Yes. Time consuming? Yes. Algebra level math, or above? No.

And those Greek letters? Merely shorthand to communicate in a concise fashion. Does the ampersand scare you? (&) How about the octothorp? (#) No to both? Then why does mu? (µ) It is just a symbol that is a short hand for a specific purpose. If you are a programmer, you have even less excuse. You learn to use programming languages with a short hand all their own, frequently unique to that language.

Why not learn the shorthand of the language of statistics? If I can memorize a bunch of facts to answer 50 questions chosen from 702, why can’t you memorize maybe a dozen symbols?

I think we have taken another reason, and found it was merely an excuse. Now, I will agree, the math part might take a little bit, but if you can do basic algebra, that is easily overcome. With just a little practice. I would say, a few days of effort, at most, to reacquire and master those skills.

That leaves us with reason 2b. I think you can see, this is merely another excuse. Why is it relevant? Well, for not seeing this, we must lay the blame at both you and your instructor’s feet. Yes, I am letting you off the hook a little, just a little.

In your younger days, maybe your instructors could have help point the way better. Shown more of why statistics is relevant. However, if you are older than 18, you have some responsibly for either finding it, or requiring your instructor to point you in the right direction. Some would argue you really have all of the responsibility.

Marketing uses statistics in an attempt to determine market trends. Finance tries to predict financial markets, stock trends, and future yields. The airlines use it to better fill their airplanes. An empty seat is not just lost revenue, it is an expense. Psychology and medicine use it to extrapolate relationships between behaviors, illnesses, medicines and various other relationships. Manufacturing of all kinds use statistics to ensure the quality of their products. How does your field? I am sure five minutes with Google will yield several situations used in your field of question.

Lack of relevance? In this era of search engines, I would say lack of wiliness to take five minutes. How much time have you used online to search out news of you favorite sports or movie star? How much relevance did that have on your career and future? Not saying it is bad, but maybe a little bit more time in the areas, you can get leverage on a better life might not be a bad idea. Who knows, you may learn things you never thought you would learn, and actually find it interesting,

So, do we have reasons, or excuses? If you have gotten this far, and are honest, I think we both know the answer. I hope you have come to the same conclusion as I have, as an undergrad, long before the degrees and position of professor.

Finally, can a good instructor help point you in the right direction? Help with techniques that guide the non-statistician or non-mathematician? Sure, but useless if you want to fall back on the excuses and resist learning.

My epiphany? Most of statistics is process and bookkeeping. Since most of my students are business students who understand the world in this fashion, this is a natural fit. However, even for non-business students, the techniques are useful to aid in understanding and to help ensure you do not forget some of those nit-picky details.

Slowly, as time permits, I will try to document some of these techniques and processes on this website.

No excuses, let us get down to business.