Before your eyes glaze over (or you sharpen your claws, depending on your orientation towards such things) I’ll ask you a little indulgence.
Several incidents employing statistical methods have happened in my small corner of the world in the past three days. They have forced me to articulate some of my issues with how we, academics and lay people, employ maths and statistics in our daily discourse.
The first is an excellent exchange between Sara Goldrick-Rab and Matt Chingos and Stuart Buck. They are engaging Sara’s critiques of statistical methods used in a randomized controlled study of school vouchers (again, stay with me here!). It’s interesting on many levels – from scholarly to politically – but there’s a turn in the exchange towards the end that is of particular interest to me.
The second incident involved a discussion on Mother Jones on the extent of public mass shootings in the U.S. In the comments (I know, I know) there was a definite trend of statistical bombing happening. The majority of those doing that statistical bombing were attempting to show that mass shootings are actually rare because they are statistically insignificant when our population and gun ownership are accounted for.
Between the two incidents I blew a small vestigial gasket.
I’d like to talk about how we use statistics as weapons.
In the first exchange the conversation devolves into some mild academic mud throwing on the rigor of the proffered statisticians called upon during the debate. There is, I think, a decidedly patriarchal tinge to this turn. Here’s a woman calling out the methodology of a report being used in some pretty politically tinged debates about the privatization of primary education. Challenges are always uncomfortable but I suspect they are even more uncomfortable when there is some genderized beliefs about who does real stats and who doesn’t.
You’ll see it in graduate school where it is assumed that all the women do qualitative methods. Or, at academic conferences when it becomes clear that there is some gender imbalance in methods workshops. And, let’s not even add race. I spent a whole semester in a quant class once having all of my correct answers to problems being credited to the sole male Asian student in the class. I mean, it was so obvious it became a class joke. I could answer a question about multicollinearity and the professor would thank the Asian guy.
There’s some definite bias about who does real statistics.
And in that bias — or perhaps as a result of it — there’s a bias about the rational superiority of a statistic.
Since rational men, often white, dominate statistics it must be the superior knowledge.
And there’s the next incident.
If 250 people die this year from mass shootings that is, as several commenters pointed out, statistically insignificant in light of our population.
But statistical significance doesn’t have jack, er, nothing to do with practical significance.
A significance level in a statistic is just a determination about how much uncertainty we’re willing to accept while simultaneously accepting the validity of the statistic. That’s all. It’s a JUDGEMENT CALL. And like all judgement calls it is made by people. And people are, not to slay your unicorn here, sometimes motivated by prejudices and biases!
So, yes, there’s a convention about acceptable significance in a statistic — if we’ll accept a .05 or a .01, for instance. But conventions are shaped over time by people and, in the case of statistics, most often by men in privileged positions of academe and society.
That’s not to say it’s useless or in itself politically motivated. But neither is it a bastion of neutrality and superiority.
It’s just a statistic. No more, no less.
That’s why careful, honest researchers will spend time telling you the limitations of their study, their data, their methods and their statistics. We assume our audience has the training to judge all of that and the quality of our overall findings.
On the flip side we know that most of our society isn’t trained to be good readers of data. There are too many reasons for that to get into now. The fact is that some of us try to use that ignorance (or, unawareness) as a weapon. And that is when I start to blow steam.
If you are willing to accept 250 dead from mass shootings because they total fewer than 5% of the U.S. population? Fine. That’s between you and your god or moral compass.
But you can’t tell me that you are superior and unassailably right to make that determination because of an arbitrary level of “significance”.
I happen to be uncomfortable with 250 people shot dead in public spaces by an armed gunman. For me, the practical significance of 250 dead people is sufficient for discourse on gun control. I want a .00 significance level on mass shootings. That is certainly as rational and logical as any other level of significance.
Similarly, I am uncomfortable with the idea that a randomized trial with flaws beats the best observational studies. A hierarchy of knowledge is always political. There is rigor and there is lack of rigor. But, the minute you start telling me that your method is superior because it gets closer to some ultimate truth I am going to respectfully call BS.
Hiding in numbers is a way to evade the consequences of what you are really saying.
You’re saying that your math is better because you are the one doing it and you are superior.
You are saying that your controlled experiment is superior because it reduces complexities to rational numbers.
You are saying that 250 dead people is not enough for you to consider giving up your annual hunting trip.
Say what you really mean but don’t try to bludgeon people with a statistic you assume they are too untrained or too stupid to challenge. That’s employing an innocuous statistic as a weapon, designed to shut down the validity of opposing viewpoints and not move closer to understanding.
I’ve got about a .00 significance level set for that, too…and I did OK in econometrics. Ask the Asian guy.