Some people hate Mathematics. This disdain they transfer to anything that sounds like Mathematics. In University, I met some undergraduates who actually opted to study Psychology because they felt it had nothing to do with Mathematics. Unfortunately, they would be forced to spend three years learning statistics. Naturally, the fear of Mathematics in primary school is transferred to the fear of statistics in secondary and tertiary level. Psychologists have coined interesting names for this negative relationship with one of the most basic subjects invented by humans – statisticophobia or statistics anxiety. Which ever you prefer, it describes negative feelings and thoughts some people experience when they encounter statistics in any form.
I dare say there are good reasons for this attitude. The way statistics has been taught has always been a key problem. Not many Mathematics teachers share the view of Arthur Benjamin, the Mathematics genius who is of the opinion that statistics is at the apex of Mathematical knowledge. Many teach Statistics as an extension of Mathematics, without bothering to explain the implications it has on everyday living. Many do not know Statistics started as an attempt by government to better understand and grasp with problems such as population, resource allocation, public health etc., which is why it is ‘state mathematics’, coined from the Latin for ‘state’.
If I were a Statistics lecturer, the first material I would hand my students would be Hans Rosling’s The Joy Of Stats. This beautiful documentary is a historical and functional discourse on Statistics. In it, the Swedish professor revealed that Stats is the principal tool citizens now use in monitoring government, an irony given the fact that government invented statistics to monitor citizens. Function should precede instruction. Students need to see the practical application of what they learn. More importantly, they need to be shown ways of applying this knowledge. With Statistics this is very easy.
Another thing I would do is discard with calculations. Yea, I said it! I would only teach computational statistics. Programs like SPSS, STATA, EXCEL etc should be the basic method for solving statistical problems in Nigerian classes because that way we can crunch more data and solve problems like the rest of the world is doing. At higher levels we should be thinking about R and MATLAB.
Statistics should be taught as the language it is. The way we discuss football, governance, public issues is interwoven with statistics. Oddly, most people don’t even realise it. If you follow trends on Twitter, check the past results of a club before making that stake, or visit BudgIt, you are using stats. It becomes oxymoronic to be afraid of something we use, something we rely on even. Thankfully, the internet may be the game changer.
One of the psychological methods used in treating phobias is flooding, a process which involve exposure to the object of phobia. This is exactly what the internet does with stats. This exposure therapy takes the form of infographics and other tools of data journalism available online. The coming of age of data journalism as a field and data visualisation as an art meant statistical analysis and presentation did not have to be boring. What was unprecedented was the way the internet would blend with data journalism. Statistics became the new cool as bloggers, sportscasters, businesspeople, health officials, and government workers turned online for data. Words that were relegated to data science texts are now common internet lingoes. People now talk about analytics and trends, half-knowing the statistical implication.
New tools and platforms have sprung up in the past decade to ensure Statistics maintains its rightful place in public discourse. Governance is been redefined as the likes of BudgIt simplify otherwise complex government data. If you want to be very cool about it you can also listen to http://www.datastori.es and hear Enrico Bertini and Mortiz Stefaner talk about data. Indeed, stats has gotten so easy we can talk about it. How cool can a subject get? Stats teachers and visionaries are accessible we can follow them online. Seun Onigbinde and Alberto Cairo are two individuals I may not have access to in a world without the internet. What’s more, there are online courses on platforms like coursera.com where statistical programs like SPSS, STATA, and R are taught. Bottom line: you can teach yourself stats.
The internet has made statistics conversational From a psychological viewpoint, this is therapeutic. Statistics anxiety will diminish gradually as we find more cool ways to use data in solving the problems around us and letting people know about it. Soon we may have to worry about Statisticomania.