Let’s Teach Probability & Statistics – We Need It!!

Let’s admit it – the world is chaotic and uncertain right now, and granted, a little scary. What I am finding even scarier is the statistics that are being constantly thrown at us, since so much of what we are seeing/hearing as ‘evidence’ is often distorted, misinterpreted or an outright lie.

I was listening to NPR at the gym the other day, where they were talking about lying (in particular the distorted truth in much of the politics today)(On The Media, Dec. 6, Lies, Lies, Lies).  At the same time, one of the TV’s hanging from the ceiling was reporting on Donald Trump vs. the media about who is distorting the truth more (now THAT’S a tough question). As I looked at the latest ‘poll’ results on the TV showing Donald Trump with a huge lead in the polls, I was also hearing on my radio one of the analysts on NPR talking about how deceiving these very polls were. According to Nate Silver :

“Donald Trump might be showing a 25-30% lead, but that’s 25-30% of the 25% of the voting population that identifies themselves as Republican, which is really only about 8% of the electorate.

Polls are very deceiving if you don’t understand the statistics behind them, such as who was polled, how many were polled, who did the poll, etc.

The NPR story had several other statistics from various politicians, though Donald Trump was the front-runner there. They had this statistical distortion as well:

Donald Trump stated: “We have 93 million people out of work, they look for jobs, and give up, and then all of a sudden, statistically, they are considered employed”.  The 93 million is in fact a statistical distortion (or lie). According to NPR, those 93 million”unemployed’ people includes: 38 million retired people, 10 million stay-at-home moms, approximately 6 million students, and 9 million on disability – so not really 93 million people out of work. But it sure sounds like a lot, and it scares people into believing that the unemployment statistics (at 5% unemployment) is a lie – a never-ending, vicious cycle.

This post is not about Donald Trump, of course – he just provides a lot of fodder for statistical distortion. This post is a call for a change in our math curriculum. We need probability & statistics education in our schools. As a mathematician and educator who has studied and used probability and statistics, I know how easy it is to distort the numbers/graphs to make them say what you want. I am perhaps a bit more skeptical of the statistics I see/hear from politicians/media/companies. What worries me is that so many people do not have this sense of skepticism, and are so willing to accept these “facts” and make poor decisions. According to the specialists, researchers and fact checkers on the NPR show, even when given the correct facts/statistics or shown that what they were told was a bold-faced lie, most people won’t change their minds about something. That’s SCARY!!

I think a large part of this inability to understand or question statistics is that most people did not take a probability or statistics course in K-12, and maybe not even in college, if they went. They don’t understand it, and therefore do not question the statistics they see/hear on a daily basis. The regular trajectory in K-12 is towards calculus, with HS Probability & Statistics often relegated to ‘advanced placement’ students. Most students never take it and their only exposure to Probability & Statistics is a section or two in lower grades or an algebra course. We do not put enough emphasis on the importance of Probability & Statistics, which is real-world mathematics we see every day in the world around us. The Common Core has definitely made Probability & Statistics more of a focus, which is great, and hopefully this will help reorganize math curriculum’s throughout the country so that all students are pushed to take Probability & Statistics in HS. This is my message for today – teach Probability & Statistics! And what better way to start doing so then to start exploring some of the statistics/polls that we see on a daily basis these days and help students understand how these ‘facts’ can be manipulated. Look at the statistics and explore the fact checkers and use mathematics to uncover the truth. Let’s help students be better informed and better able to understand and use mathematics to make decisions.

I found this great (and short) Ted Talk by Arthur Benjamin from 2009 that pretty much sums up why we need to teach Probability & Statistics.  If nothing else, so we can make more informed decisions about our world.