Mark Twain popularized the saying (originally attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli), “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” The use of statistics to manipulate the reader or obfuscate the truth is an old practice. Indeed, as Thomas Carlisle noted in his 1839 book Chartism, “A witty statesman said, you can prove anything by figures.” And HG Wells argued that “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.”
The growing availability of data makes basic statistical literacy ever more important. An editorial in the New York Times earlier this year proclaimed that we are now living in the “Age of Big Data,” when the widespread collection and tracking of data necessitates individuals who are capable of making sense of it all. Google searches, Facebook profiles, customer profiling, and the like create mountains of information waiting to be analyzed. Employers want people who are capable of understanding and making sense of these data. The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2012 survey lists both the “ability to analyze quantities data” and the “ability to obtain and process information” among its top skills desired by employers.
Yet a recent story in the British Telegraph concludes that “statistical illiteracy leaves citizens at risk of being duped by politicians and businessmen.” Their alarming conclusion led The Guardian’s Datablog to create a simple quiz that
While political science programs across the country frequently require a methods component, many have not focused on the more basic questions of statistical literacy. It is important for our students to understand the fundamentals of research design. But shouldn’t we also be teaching them about the use (and misuse) of statistics?
A great starting point is Prof. Talithia Williams’ video lecture as part of the Distinctive Voices series at the National Academy of Sciences.
Williams’ video would make an outstanding supplemental “reading” assignment for any political science course concerned with developing data and statistical literacy skills.
How do you teach these skills? Are these skills taught in a specific course or developed throughout the major? What assignments and activities do you use to teach these skills? Share your feedback with us below.