Statistical Literacy: How We Can Help

Brian Jersky
Sonoma State University

Newsletter for the Section on Statistical Education
Volume 9, Number 2 (Summer 2003)


In a series of excellent and stimulating articles in the May 2003 issue of The American Statistician, four well-known statisticians ask what we can do to promote the concept of statistical literacy. Jessica Utts, the lead author of this series, defines statistical literacy as the ability "to make wise decisions when appropriate information is provided." In addition to asking this question, the authors suggest ways to answer it. In an attempt to whet your appetites so that you read the original articles, I am going to try to summarize their main points below.

In the first article, by Utts, the target audience is those of us who teach students in an introductory statistics class. The author suggests seven important topics that need to be included in any such course. As I read these, I found myself nodding my head and agreeing that these certainly belonged there, and that I need to ensure that in my next class, I will talk about each one of the topics in a more explicit way.

The topics are:

  1. When is a relationship one of cause and effect?
  2. What is the difference between statistical and practical significance?
  3. The difference between "no effect" and no statistically significant effect.
  4. Sources of bias in experiments and surveys.
  5. Coincidences and the assessment of low probability events.
  6. Conditional probability in one direction should not be confused with conditional probability in the other direction.
  7. Understanding the key role of variability in life.

Iddo Gal's article focuses on developing statistical literacy of citizens in general; in particular the potential role of statistical agencies in education. Agencies in this article include national agencies, such as the US Bureau of the Census; national thematic agencies, such as the National Agricultural Statistics Service; and International Agencies, such as the World Bank.

Gal suggests that links between these agencies and educators are important and should be developed or strengthened. He notes that these agencies have recently expanded their range of services to include journalists and students, in addition to their traditional clients, officials or politicians. They can thus be seen as important players in statistics education and in the task of promoting statistical literacy.

Philip Boland discusses the promotion of statistical thinking in secondary school students, in the context of important local or national issues. This enables statistics to be taught in a rich and contextualized framework.

He gives several interesting examples, such as national lotteries and their relationship to probability theory, statistical applications in the law and medicine, illustrations of the power of graphs, and simulation exercises. All of these are examples from Ireland, where Boland is based, but they can clearly be applied anywhere.

He ably demonstrates how using examples of local or national interest can stimulate students' interest in statistics.

Eric Sowey discusses how all societies are engaged with the issue of innumeracy, and summarizes some current approaches to enhancing numeracy. He presents an additional approach that would encourage statisticians to enhance their clients' numeracy, and thereby to contribute to the overall goal of increasing numeracy in society.

He envisages free community statistical services, analogous to free community legal services, and suggests that statisticians could work in these on a pro bono basis. Sowey is based in Australia, which has already moved towards formal professionalization of statistics, so this role could fit into that model. He notes that as educators, we would have to educate statisticians to fulfil this role effectively.

All four of these articles have extensive bibliographies, which deal with similar or related ideas. The four articles and their bibliographies would make fascinating summer reading, if you were looking for intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking work.

I highly recommend them.


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