Uses and Abuses of Statistics

Some Uses

  • Organize, summarize, and present data
  • Generalize from knowledge of sample data to (probably accurate) knowledge of a larger population
  • Test hypotheses
  • Determine relationships between variables
  • Make predictions from existing data

Some Abuses

  • Quoting statistics based on non-representative samples
  • Choosing the "average" value for a sample which most lends itself to your position, when a different "average" value would be more appropriate
  • Speaking of changes in a variable in terms of actual values or percentages to either inflate or deflate their importance psychologically. (How happy would you be if your net worth increased by $10,000,000. What if that only represented a 0.3% increase?)
  • Using detached statistics like "1/3 fewer carbs" (fewer than what?)
  • Implying causal connections between variables without a well-designed experiment to back it up (i.e., "Doctors say that taking lipotrim twice a day ''may reduce'' your weight by up to 30 lbs in the first 2 weeks!")
  • Formatting graphs to mislead the eye
  • Designing questions to be used on a survey that will bias the results