Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lies, damned lies and statistics!

To me the world has gone too far in requiring everything to be statistically proven before it is accepted as ‘true’. In this regard I would like to make a few general comments about statistics, particularly as applied and used in psychology.

I am studying statistics, via a subject called Research Methods 2, because I did Research Methods 1 and because the Psychology degree I am working towards demands that I should at least understand and be able to use some basic statistics. But I am a sceptic – I use statistics but I don’t really believe in them. You could say that I am an ‘agnostic’ when it comes to statistics. As a (hopefully) future worker in the field I swallow my agnosticism and constantly remind myself that the first responsibility of psychologists and people working in any of the social sciences or humanities is not to statistical accuracy but the well being of mankind - to happiness and health.

But then I need to consider the strong possibility (dare I use the word ‘probability’?) that my ‘agnosticism’ reflects the fact that I just do not enjoy the subject of statistics! I mean statistical reports give the impression of accuracy, of absolute fact, yet in reality there are phrases such as ‘differences may be due to sampling errors’ or ‘this cannot be answered definitively, but it can be evaluated in a statistical way’. This is short-hand for ‘what are the relative likelihoods of the opposing scenarios being important factors?” Or even mind bending statements that go like this: ‘Statistical decision making involves inductive inference. Based on a sample, we draw a conclusion about the population we think it was drawn from’ - if you get my drift! In reality, are statistics that important in the great scheme of things? Some people obviously believe in them but I don’t. Statistics may be useful indicators of something or pointers towards a solution but that is about as far as they (should) go.

While I have commented on this before, some repetition may be worthwhile. Statisticians tell me that it is a statistical probability that, being a male in a certain age group and with certain racial and physical characteristics and with certain religious beliefs, I will have certain likes and dislikes, be of a certain height, be overweight (even obese) and have this or that medical problem and that when presented with an ethical dilemma I will answer in this or that way. But I am not a ‘probability’ – I am a human being.

No doubt it is a great nuisance to statisticians and those who use their figures that mankind is not uniform but compounded of individuals with their own likes and dislikes and their own interpretation of events and situations. Statisticians (and others – politicians and such like) would like humanity to ‘conform’ to some easily defined standard or ‘norm’ but we don’t and pretending that we do is plain wrong – even a waste of time.

It must never be forgotten that the essence of every life is the fulfilment of the potential each is born with. All human life is bound to individuals who manifest it, and it is simply inconceivable without them. But every human is charged with an individual destiny and destination, and the journey to that destination or the fulfilment of that destiny is the only thing that makes sense of life.

To me there is a profound social process behind the figures used in the construction and evaluation of ‘scientific’ (read statistical) psychological data and that much of what we are ‘guided’ to do, as a consequence of an uncritical approach to statistics, relies on an ingenuous (mis)use of words that considers ‘facts’ as absolute certainty, as ‘true knowledge’, as ‘objective things’ beyond inference, question or reproach, and when information becomes ‘scientific’ merely because it is arranged and presented in a form that follows the APA (American Psychological Association) guidelines, we are in deep trouble.

As to the constant push by many aspects of our society to conform, how about (a repeat)of the wonderful quote from the Indian sage, Krishnamurti, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” (from ‘All in the Mind’ by Merlin Donald)

Think about it.

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