A libertarian inclined blog for teachers and learners of all ages. Comments, emails and links to other educational stuff welcome.

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Next entry: Schools as immune system strengtheners
Previous entry: Michael J. Lewis on fetters and stern taskmasters
Tuesday April 29 2008

I did some ego-googling today about something else, and discovered that Tim Worstall did a post two months ago about a Samizdata posting I did entitled What use is maths?

Here’s his answer:

I would split the subject into two. For past a certain level, it most certainly is two entirely different disciplines. The first is pure maths. For those who like it (most definitely a subset of the population) it’s glorious, beautiful, engaging, even thrilling. It’s also a description of the universe as it ought to be. Any connection between results and the real world is entirely coincidental: pure mathematicians are the original “yes, that’s all very well in practice, but is it true in theory?” people. Once you climb into the higher realms (well past A levels) the value is like that of poetry. That’s not to say that more practically useful things don’t come from it, of course they do, but it’s not done for its practicality nor will anyone attempting to do it for its practicality do very well at it.

Statistics rather reverses this. Looking at it in one way it’s rather like, yes, well, this is all very well in theory but is it true in practice? We go out and gather real world information and then examine it to see what it tells us. While we might think that x happens because of y, we actually want to find out whether that is true. Or does y happen because of x? Or do they both happen because of a? Or are they simply correlated rather than caused by any of them? And many statistical tests are designed to work out how important our result is.

There’s two things that statistics are extremely useful for. The first is to teach you how to gamble: that’s the root of the whole subject anyway. Seriously, it really started with people trying to work out how to win at cards and dice. Things like the Fibonacci series, which explains things as varied as the placing of petals on a flower and possibly the curling of a wave, also explain the liklihood of throwing a 4, 5 or any other number with a pair of dice. From that we derive ! and so on.

But the second thing it’s extremely useful for is politics. The standard intro by some pantywaist who wants to steal your liberty, livelihood and freedoms is “research has shown that….”. Statistics enables you to evaluate whether research actually has shown (the death rate from Ebola is 80% so yes, clamping down on movements and civil liberties during an outbreak can be justified) or not shown ("the part time pay gap for women is 40%”, no, it isn’t, that’s comparing the wages per hour of part time women against full time men. Comparing part time women against part time men gives us 11%.) the point that the speaker is trying to make.

Which of the two you are good at, which you prefer doing, largely depends upon your mindset at the beginning. I’m not very good at either, but I do struggle to understand the statistics side as well as I can for defending those liberties, livelihoods and freedoms from those who would steal them on spurious grounds seems to me rather important.

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