Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” Mark Twain

I love statistics– because you can massage the meaning of numbers. Statistics are the creative writing; arithmetic the grammar. Like creative writing, statistical relationships are often rooted in truth.

For example, never again can I read or hear: 9 out of 10 dentists agree colgate is the best toothpaste without asking myself:

1) Do any of the dentists work for Colgate?
2) What was the 10th dentist’s response?
3) How was “agree” defined?
4) What choices, other than colgate, were offered?

Because agreeing colgate is the best toothpaste over, say, canned dog food changes everything.

But it took appreciating and understanding statistics to help me not hate all math. That hatred of math, by the way, had nothing to do with my gender, or the quality of my early math education– my first three official math teachers were female; two of them, excellent teachers.

No, I hated math because it required consistently finishing homework, consistently studying, and regular memorization of random details. And then, just as I got the numbers part under control (oh multiplication tables, how I hated thee), they added in letters.

Boo! Hiss!, says the ADHD.

I clawed my way through middle and high school math, using charm, brute force, or very tiny pieces of paper filled with even tinier notes –DON’T JUDGE ME– stuck behind my calculator.

It’s 1993, my senior year of high school. The year of big bangs and Birkenstock sandals with socks. First period is Advanced Math, a docile name hiding Trigonometry and Other Math Designed to Kill Me.

My face–then and now– grins, remembering: Mr. Kublank, his thick rimmed black eyeglasses resting on a face stamped with the ennui from decades of teaching math in a public school, prepares to speak.

He’s interrupted by a ragged crackling from the intercom, followed by a disembodied voice announcing to Please excuse all seniors from class. Seniors, please report to the cafeteria for an honorary biscuit breakfast.

When an intercom gets beat on until it dangles, broken and useless, by one industrial-strength electrical cord, does it make a sound?

Most students fear the temper, misunderstand the sarcasm. I should too, since my calculations suggest that I need to make 100s on the next 5 tests, and all remaining homework assignments, just to get up to a D.

But his attitude doesn’t scare me; I’ve spent the year being tormented by my accounting teacher and her Anti-Stephanie Agenda.

Mr Kublank, rubs a meaty hand forcefully against his forehead, trying to rub away the vision of confused teen-aged faces, as his exasperation grows. He’s trying–again–to explain the semi-vagueness of probability theory to kids who excelled in absolute values.

“It’s about how often a random thing happens. Is it zero probability? For example, the letter Q”, he said. “You never see Q in a word without a following U.”

And from the back of the room, a lone smart-ass voice (mine) said, “That’s not true. What about Iraq?”

Perhaps that comment, well-timed proof that I was paying attention, motivated him to give me the points I needed to graduate.

Perhaps when I gently pointed out that if I flunked I’d have to re-take his class the following year.

Perhaps my attendance, while sporadic and random for the other 6 classes, was almost perfect in first period. That’s a sign of respect, right? To ditch all your other classes with regularity save for one?

Perhaps it was simply that I marked down the price on his favorite deli bread on those days when his grocery shopping coincided with my work days.

I never understood sine, cosine and tangent– and thinking about them makes a spot in the middle of my back feel itchy, like I’m being watched by an enemy.

But my ability to understand how statistics can be manipulated to make consumers feel comfortable has often saved me from metaphorically brushing my teeth with canned dog food.

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