Econometrics, correlation, probability distribution, I’m probably making some of you feel sick already. Whether you’re a student or not, statistics doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. It’s abstract, often confusing and can be easily misinterpreted to suit some political needs.
But look closer and it can offer up some pretty good life lessons.
Lesson One: Just because things happen at the same time, doesn’t mean they are related.
All good lessons start with a story and this one is called “Get the hell away from the ice-cream”.
Our story is set during the 1950s, tens of thousands of children are getting infected with Polio. Many of them are eventually facing paralysis and many are dying, too. So, the hunt is on to find out why, what’s causing Polio?
For the scientists’ at the time, the thinking went something like this..
The disease seems to peak at summer time. It’s mainly happening to children. And what do children do in the summer? They eat ice cream…of course, it’s the ice cream! Close down all the ice cream vans now!
Needless to say, ice cream sales plummeted but polio did not.
The scientists didn’t have a good theory for why ice cream would cause something like polio, they just saw two things happen together and assumed one caused the other. That sort of thinking can be a big problem.
Life tip: Correlation is not causation – just because your ex and your best friend came online on whatsapp at the same, doesn’t mean they are talking to each other and having a secret relationship, no really, you need to calm down.
Lesson Two: You’re probably obsessed with the average.
Suppose Jacob earns £30,000 per year but some months he earns nothing and others he earns loads. Now imagine Sue earns £30,000 per year too but earns the same salary every month.
Who would you rather be? Even though Jacob and Sue earn the same on average, there is a difference in how their income varies month to month. And if you don’t look at how something varies then you probably don’t have enough information about it. Beneath a nice looking average income, you could have a lot of uncertainty and variation.
Life tip: Whether you care about earnings or even sports scores, remember to look not only at the average but how something varies. You want to know if a high average is coming from high scores all year round or some wild ups and downs.
Lesson Three: Ask yourself how you feel, today, tomorrow and the day after.
We are all scared of people stealing our data or using it in creepy ways. But why not use your own data to help yourself?
Statisticians would like to have all the data on you across the whole span of your life, they want everything – quick, tape your webcam now! No, seriously, they want data on you over time, not just one day. And there’s a reason for that, just like one person can’t tell you about who the group behaves overall, one day is not enough to get a good picture of who are you. Maybe you’re having shitty day and the statisticians arrive with their survey and you come across as overly depressed. But overall you might be pretty happy with life. They will have a totally inaccurate picture of you.
So similarly, hating or loving something for one day or one week is probably not , a goo indicator of how you feel about your jobs, a new hobby, relationships and life in general.
Life tip: Having a dilemma about whether to continue something you’ve just started? Find a way to record how you feel about it over a few weeks and in different situations, rather than just quit on a bad day. That way you’ll get a more accurate picture of how you feel.