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Statistics in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference

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One thing I (Sarah) have learned over the last 20 or so years is that a sure way to derail a promising conversation at a party is to tell people what I do for a living. And rest assured that I’m neither a tax auditor nor captain of a sludge barge.No, I’m merely a biostatistician and statistics instructor, a revelation which invariably provokes a response such as “statistics was my worst class in school” or the sudden inspiration to quote that old chestnut popularized by Mark Twain that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Personally, I find statistics fascinating and I love working in this field.I like teaching statistics as well, and I like to believe that I communicate some of this enthusiasm to my students, most of whom are physicians or other healthcare professionals required to take my classes as part of their fellowship studies.It’s often an uphill battle, however: some of them arrive with a negative attitude toward everything statistical, possibly augmented by the belief that statistics is some kind of magical procedure that will do their thinking for them, or a set of tricks and manipulations whose purpose is to twist reality in order to mislead other people.

I’m not sure how statistics got such a bad reputation, or why so many people have a negative attitude toward it.I do know that most of them can’t afford it: the need to be competent in statistics is fast becoming a necessity in many fields of work. It’s also becoming a requirement to be a thoughtful participant in modern society, as we are bombarded daily by statistical information and arguments, many of questionable merit.I have long since ceased to hope that I can keep everyone from misusing statistics: instead I have placed my hopes in cultivating a statisticseducated populace who will be able to recognize when statistics are being misused and discount the speaker’s credibility accordingly.We (Sarah and Paul) have tried to address both concerns in this book: statistics as a professional necessity, and statistics as part of the intellectual content required for informed citizenship.
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