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Introduction to statistics

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Normal distribution and scales

A graph of a bell curve in a normal distribution showing statistics used in educational assessment, comparing various grading methods. Shown are standard deviations, cumulative percentages, percentile equivalents, Z-scores, T-scores, standard nine, and percent in stanine.

Statistics is a mathematical science pertaining to the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of data. It is applicable to a wide variety of academic disciplines, from the physical and social sciences to the humanities; it is also used for making informed decisions in all areas of business and government.

Statistical methods can be used to summarize or describe a collection of data; this is called descriptive statistics. In addition, patterns in the data may be modeled in a way that accounts for randomness and uncertainty in the observations, to draw inferences about the process or population being studied; this is called inferential statistics. Both descriptive and inferential statistics can be considered part of applied statistics. There is also a discipline of mathematical statistics, which is concerned with the theoretical basis of the subject.

The word statistics is also the plural of statistic (singular), which refers to the result of applying a statistical algorithm to a set of data, as in employment statistics, accident statistics, etc.

ctimes; data collected about this kind of "population" constitute what is called a time series.

For practical reasons, rather than compiling data about an entire population, one usually instead studies a chosen subset of the population, called a sample. Data are collected about the sample in an observational or experimental setting. The data are then subjected to statistical analysis, which serves two related purposes: description and inference.

The concept of correlation is particularly noteworthy. Statistical analysis of a data set may reveal that two variables (that is, two properties of the population under consideration) tend to vary together, as if they are connected. For example, a study of annual income and age of death among people might find that poor people tend to have shorter lives than affluent people. The two variables are said to be correlated. However, one cannot immediately infer the existence of a causal relationship between the two variables; see correlation implies causation (logical fallacy).

If the sample is representative of the population, then inferences and conclusions made from the sample can be extended to the population as a whole. A major problem lies in determining the extent to which the chosen sample is representative. Statistics offers methods to estimate and correct for randomness in the sample and in the data collection procedure, as well as methods for designing robust experiments in the first place; see experimental design.

The fundamental mathematical concept employed in understanding such randomness is probability. Mathematical statistics (also called statistical theory) is the branch of applied mathematics that uses probability theory and analysis to examine the theoretical basis of statistics.

The use of any statistical method is valid only when the system or population under consideration satisfies the basic mathematical assumptions of the method. Misuse of statistics can produce subtle but serious errors in description and interpretation — subtle in that even experienced professionals sometimes make such errors, and serious in that they may affect social policy, medical practice and the reliability of structures such as bridges and nuclear power plants.

Even when statistics is correctly applied, the results can be difficult to interpret for a non-expert. For example, the statistical significance of a trend in the data — which measures the extent to which the trend could be caused by random variation in the sample — may not agree with one's intuitive sense of its significance. The set of basic statistical skills (and skepticism) needed by people to deal with information in their everyday lives is referred to as statistical literacy.

Statistical methods

Experimental and observational studies

A common goal for a statistical research project is to investigate causality, and in particular to draw a conclusion on the effect of changes in the values of predictors or independent variables on a response or dependent variable. There are two major types of causal statistical studies, experimental studies and observational studies. In both types of studies, the effect of differences of an independent variable (or variables) on the behavior of the dependent variable are observed. The difference between the two types is in how the study is actually conducted. Each can be very effective.

An experimental study involves taking measurements of the system under study, manipulating the system, and then taking additional measurements using the same procedure to determine if the manipulation may have modified the values of the measurements. In contrast, an observational study does not involve experimental manipulation. Instead data are gathered and correlations between predictors and the response are investigated.

An example of an experimental study is the famous Hawthorne studies which attempted to test changes to the working environment at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company. The researchers were interested in whether increased illumination would increase the productivity of the assembly line workers. The researchers first measured productivity in the plant then modified the illumination in an area of the plant to see if changes in illumination would affect productivity. Due to errors in experimental procedures, specifically the lack of a control group and blindedness, the researchers were unable to do what they planned, in what is known as the Hawthorne effect.

An example of an observational study is a study which explores the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. This type of study typically uses a survey to collect observations about the area of interest and then perform statistical analysis. In this case, the researchers would collect observations of both smokers and non-smokers and then look at the number of cases of lung cancer in each group.

The basic steps for an experiment are to:

  1. plan the research including determining information sources, research subject selection, and ethical considerations for the proposed research and method,
  2. design the experiment concentrating on the system model and the interaction of independent and dependent variables,
  3. summarize a collection of observations to feature their commonality by suppressing details (descriptive statistics),
  4. reach consensus about what the observations tell us about the world we observe (statistical inference),
  5. document and present the results of the study.

Levels of measurement

There are four types of measurements or measurement scales used in statistics. The four types or levels of measurement (nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio) have different degrees of usefulness in statistical research. Ratio measurements, where both a zero value and distances between different measurements are defined, provide the greatest flexibility in statistical methods that can be used for analysing the data. Interval measurements have meaningful distances between measurements but no meaningful zero value (such as IQ measurements or temperature measurements in degrees Celsius). Ordinal measurements have imprecise differences between consecutive values but a meaningful order to those values. Nominal measurements have no meaningful rank order among values.

Statistical techniques

Some well known statistical tests and procedures for research observations are:

Specialized disciplines

Some sciences use applied statistics so extensively that they have specialized terminology. These disciplines include:


The rapid and sustained increases in computing power starting from the second half of the 20th century have had a substantial impact on the practice of statistical science. Early statistical models were almost always from the class of linear models, but powerful computers, coupled with suitable numerical algorithms, caused a resurgence of interest in nonlinear models (especially neural networks and decision trees) and the creation of new types, such as generalised linear models and multilevel models.

The computer revolution has implications for the future of statistics, with a new emphasis on "experimental" and "empirical" statistics and a large number of statistical packages.


There is a general perception that statistical knowledge is all-too-frequently intentionally misused, by finding ways to interpret the data that are favorable to the presenter. (A famous quote, variously attributed, but thought to be from Benjamin Disraeli [1] is: "There are three types of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics.") Indeed, the well-known book How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff discusses many cases of deceptive uses of statistics, focusing on misleading graphs. By choosing (or rejecting, or modifying) a certain sample, results can be manipulated; throwing out outliers is one means of doing so. This may be the result of outright fraud or of subtle and unintentional bias on the part of the researcher.

As further studies contradict previously announced results, people may become wary of trusting such studies. One might read a study that says (for example) "do X to reduce high blood pressure", followed by a study that says "doing X does not affect high blood pressure", followed by a study that says "doing X actually worsens high blood pressure". Often the studies were conducted on different groups with different protocols, or a small-sample study that promised intriguing results has not held up to further scrutiny in a large-sample study. However, many readers may not have noticed these distinctions, or the media may have oversimplified this vital contextual information, and the public's distrust of statistics is thereby increased.

However, deeper criticisms come from the fact that the hypothesis testing approach, widely used and in many cases required by law or regulation, forces one hypothesis to be 'favored' (the null hypothesis), and can also seem to exaggerate the importance of minor differences in large studies. A difference that is highly statistically significant can still be of no practical significance.

See also criticism of hypothesis testing and controversy over the null hypothesis.

In the fields of psychology and medicine, especially with regard to the approval of new drug treatments by the Food and Drug Administration, criticism of the hypothesis testing approach has increased in recent years. One response has been a greater emphasis on the p-value over simply reporting whether or not a hypothesis was rejected at the given level of significance \alpha. Here again, however, this summarises the evidence for an effect but not the size of the effect. One increasingly common approach is to report confidence intervals instead, since these indicate both the size of the effect and the uncertainty surrounding it. This aids in interpreting the results, as the confidence interval for a given \alpha simultaneously indicates both statistical significance and effect size.

Note that both the p-value and confidence interval approaches are based on the same fundamental calculations as those entering into the corresponding hypothesis test. The results are stated in a more detailed format, rather than the yes-or-no finality of the hypothesis test, but use the same underlying statistical methodology.

A truly different approach is to use Bayesian methods; see Bayesian inference. This approach has been criticized as well, however. The strong desire to see good drugs approved and harmful or useless ones restricted remain conflicting tensions (Type I and Type II errors in the language of hypothesis testing).

In his book Statistics As Principled Argument, Robert P. Abelson makes the case that statistics serves as a standardized means of settling arguments between scientists who could otherwise each argue the merits of their own cases ad infinitum. Statistics is, in this view, a form of rhetoric. This can be viewed as a positive or a negative, but as with any means of settling a dispute, statistical methods can succeed only so long as both sides accept the approach and agree on the particular method to be used.

See also

References & Bibliography


  1. cf. "Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists" by Joel Best. Professor Best attributes it to Disraeli, rather than Mark Twain or others.


  • Foster,J. Barkus,E. and Yavorsky,C. (2005).Understanding and Using Advanced Statistics: A Practical Guide for Students. London, Sage. ISBN 141290014X
  • Parker,Ian (2005). Qualitative Psychology: Introducing Radical Research. Buckingham: Open University Press.ISBN: 0-335-21349-9

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