Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Statistics Prof Dispels Myths, Warns Rotarians of the Malleability of Numbers

The members of the Rotary Club of Lancaster in attendance at Wednesday's weekly meeting enjoyed a lecture on statistics from Dr. Al Forsyth, who has taught statistics as an adjunct Professor at Millersville University, Franklin & Marshall College, and Penn State University.

Forsyth spoke about the importance of being able to understand statistics, since they are frequently adduced as evidence for many different claims. "Even our professionals are being fooled by not being able to read [statistical] reports," he said.

Forsyth is also distressed by what he sees as "a decline in public regard for scientific findings."

He presented examples of widespread claims that have been based on faulty statistics, including that "an aspirin a day keeps the doctor away," that "marijuana is a gateway drug," and that "there is a correlation between Female CEOs and lower stock prices."

"We tend to think linearly and much of the world isn't like that," Forsyth said.

He also pointed out that different people can read the same information and draw different conclusions from it based solely on their initial prejudices and interpretive tendencies.

Forsyth encouraged his listeners to visit to learn more about and take tests revealing their often subconscious prejudices.

He repeated that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. "Even where there is a strong correlation, it's still often inappropriate to assume causation," he said.

Forsyth said that the news media has to be particularly careful about how they present statistics in stories.

"There's also a disturbing trend toward paying attention to only one economic indicator at a time," he said.

Forsyth closed by saying that a proper respect for and understanding of statistical information is a key factor in helping achieve Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of social justice.