Did you know that reality could be quantified? That you could describe what practically happens in real life just with numbers? Throughout history, some very smart people have discovered that reality contains numbers. In fact, it may be more characterized by numbers than you think. For example, the well-known Fibonacci sequence1 is still a mysterious discovery for mathematicians of all generations. Those special numbers surprisingly appear in nature2 (e.g. number of spirals on a sunflower, branching in trees, fruit sprouts of a pineapple, etc.).
« Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever is before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in mathematical language […] » Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, and mathematician.
If nature and, more generally, the universe contain numbers, then they can be explained in a quantitative way. In practice, it is generally considered as a daunting challenge; we call it statistics. Its application range is considerable and we can find statistics in a lot of areas, depending on whether human beings or nature are being described (e.g. natural and social sciences, economics).
”Statistics is a branch of mathematics dealing with the collection, analysis, interpretation, presentation, and organization of data.” Dodge, Y. (2006) The Oxford Dictionary of Statistical Terms, Oxford University Press.
Why should I care about statistics?
Predicting the future is something human beings have always tried to do. For many centuries they have been playing with the elements of nature and even trying to create connexions with life beyond by, for instance, using the luck of an octopus (see image below), special herbs, dancing around a strong fire with a scary mask, manipulating a set of strange cards, or even just staring at a deep crystal ball. These shamans, mediums or whoever use spirituality, magic or simply just cheat. They do not use the one thing which is crucial for predicting the future: scientific evidence.
Paul the Octopus3 (alias Paul the Oracle) did very accurate predictions in the 2010 football World Cup (12 out of 14 predictions were correct). Is it pure luck, just fake or a wonderful miracle ?
In contrast, using numbers in a way which is scientifically proved to be true is how we get correct predictions. For example, we could imagine using a special recipe for cooking a wonderful cake. Needless to say, without this brilliant recipe which is proved to work, we probably wouldn’t end up with the same result, and our cake would not look or taste as expected. Basically, it is the same when computing numbers in order to get an accurate description of reality; you need to be sure that it works. On the other hand, it is generally agreed that certain phenomenona cannot be predicted or described, either because of human brain complexity or of technological constraints (e.g. love, earthquake4).
What is the impact of statistics in our society?
There are many ways in which statistics could be beneficial for society on a daily basis (e.g. weather forecast, public transport). Moreover, by analyzing statistics in a long-term perspective, numbers can be used in order to save people’s life.
Let’s take, for example, prevention of skin cancer provided by the public health in Australia :
“Approximately, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, with more than 750,000 people treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia each year. Non-melanoma skin cancer is more common in men, with almost double the incidence compared to women. 5”
Concretely, this prevention warns us against the consequences of sun exposure in Australia, which appears to be a big issue in Australian public health. The numbers that are provided are very meaningful. In fact, if you randomly pick up three Australians of at least 70-year-old, then two of them will tend to be diagnosed with at least one skin cancer. On average, if the individual is a man, he will have 2 times more likelihood of having a non-melanoma skin cancer, compared to a woman of the same category.
So, if you are planning to live until 70 in Australia, then you should buy a thick parasol and an amazing sun cream.
Therefore, using statistics with the right data and interpretation could lead to conclusions, which could change society and improve people’s life. Numbers and statistics are part of a great toolbox and help the human being to better understand life.
To conclude, listen carefully during your statistics class because you will get a quantitative tool that will highly likely be part of your future job, whichever master you are doing or plan to do.
Take a look at this 3-minute video about the importance of statistics in the education system.