(Lies, damned lies, and statistics)

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” a phrase popularized by Mark Twain and variously ascribed to different public personalities, describes the persuasive power of statistics to convince, rightly or wrongly, and to prop up not only serious science but also alternative facts and fake news.

In the seventh of the PACES Lecture Series held on Friday, 26 November 2021, Dr. Cornelia C. Soto explained the basic concepts of statistics to a virtual audience in Austria and the Philippines composed of members and supporters of PACES.

Dr. Soto is a specialist in Statistical Studies. She was the Chair of the Education Department at Ateneo de Manila University from 2010 to 2018. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of the Philippines. A professional lecturer who is in demand in the Philippines, she explained in layman’s terms how the study of statistics need not be feared, although it has a reputation of being a difficult study.

Statistics deals with the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of masses of numerical data in order to describe or to draw inferences. Interestingly the word “statistics” is derived from the German “Statistik,” which itself comes from the Latin word “statisticus” or “status” meaning “condition or circumstances of a country.” It shares the the same root as the modern English word “state” referring to a political entity.

Dr. Soto gave examples of how statistics appears in our daily lives such as in describing the efficacy of vaccines (now a much-talked about topic), in sales & marketing of products and services, in sporting achievements, popularity ratings in politics, as well as to describe features of population groups related to gender, race, age, income levels, height/weight. There seems to be no end to the uses of statistics. She explained various concepts that are useful to properly appreciate the meaning of statistical numbers, such as averages, statistical deviation and margins of error. She also demonstrated how methods of sampling can lead to false or favorable statistics. Dr. Soto explained that statistics are interesting not only for what they can reveal to us, but also what they can cover up.

by Dr. Efren Abaya