ALJASSAR: Statistically speaking

Majors such as politics, neuroscience and global development studies — and others — should include a statistics requirement

Arthur Benjamin, a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd College, delivered a TED talk in 2009 in which he challenged the educational approach to mathematics in high school. Benjamin expressed his dissatisfaction with calculus as the culmination of high school mathematics. Benjamin suggested a new pedagogical paradigm for high schools. Probability and statistics, he contends, should receive more emphasis as they are more worthwhile and pragmatic to the average American.

Calculus is a beautiful branch of mathematics. A language through which we describe change, it’s had a profound effect on my understanding of the natural world. However, for the average person who works outside of economics, engineering or the sciences, calculus carries little relevance in life. “Few people actually use calculus in a conscious, meaningful way,” Benjamin argued.

Statistics — the discipline of risk, variation and drawing conclusions from data — permeates our lives to a much greater extent than calculus. Making data-driven decisions and interpreting uncertainty are essential skills for every American. While calculus and statistics are not mutually exclusive, statistics deserves much more attention than it receives.

This is a change that must also be made in higher education. While several majors such as commerce, sociology and environmental thought and practice already require an introductory statistical analysis class, there are other majors that should mandate students to take at least one semester of statistics. Majors such as government, foreign affairs, neuroscience and global development studies should create a statistics requirement.

In addition to political sampling and polling, data-driven policymaking and policy analysis demand a solid understanding of statistics. Misleading or inaccurate statistics pervade political literature. For this reason, students in the University’s politics department must attain a certain level of statistical literacy.

Currently, an introductory statistical analysis class is not necessary for a neuroscience major. But in order to apply for and declare a major in neuroscience, one must complete one semester of single-variable calculus. I see the merits of taking calculus before majoring in neuroscience; however, completing introduction to statistical analysis would be a much valuable for a neuroscience major. A study published in Nature earlier this year revealed that much of neuroscience research may be unreliable because of errors in statistical methodologies. Research depends heavily on statistical sampling and test validity. Completing coursework in statistics would complement one’s understanding of neuroscience to a greater degree than calculus would.

Add the global development studies major and global public health minor to the list of University degrees that should require an introduction to statistical analysis class. Statistical falsehoods exist in global development studies and global public health just as they exist in politics and neuroscience. Understanding statistics is critical to analyzing quantitative patterns in global development and public health; hence, any global development studies or global public health student should complete a course in statistical analysis.

Even students who plan to attend medical school should take a course in statistics. Because a greater number of medical schools are abandoning the two semesters of calculus requirement in favor of the general two semesters of mathematics requirement, students who hope to become medical doctors should consider taking statistics. Clinical research and epidemiology cannot be fully appreciated without a foundation in statistics.

Prospective law school students should also think about taking statistics. Courtroom statistics are powerful tools for prosecutors and defense attorneys. Legal subjects such as anti-discrimination law, mass tort, and the death penalty can be approached using probability and statistics.

I’m sure you get the idea by now. An understanding of probability and statistics enhances the study and pursuit of nearly every academic discipline. Benjamin’s assertion that statistics are more valuable to high school graduates than calculus holds true for college students. Certain departments, such as politics, should consider adding introductory statistical analysis to their major requirements. Programs that mandate single-variable calculus, such as neuroscience, should consider replacing calculus with introductory statistical analysis.

Even the student who does not know the major or career path he or she wishes to pursue should consider taking a statistics course. “If all of the American citizens knew about probability and statistics, we wouldn’t be in the economic mess that we’re in today,” said Benjamin toward the end of his TED Talk. While I’m not as optimistic as Benjamin, I agree that the average citizen would greatly benefit from an understanding in probability and statistics.

Nazar Aljassar is a Viewpoint columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

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