Monday, February 17, 2014

Satist* (for Statist* or Satisf*)

Excel spreadsheet on the wall, who's the satist* of them all? I can recall taking statistics back in library school and it really did make me feel sort of sad—when I wasn't feeling bored, frustrated, mystified, or terrified. My professor was a whispering wisp of a man, though he may as well have been a hulking sadist, given the emotions this dry-as-dust, yet slippery-as-an-eel discipline engendered in me. (It was the only C I ever received in grad school, but all things considered, I felt satisfied with my position on that particular bell curve.) I was relieved when the class was over, but I've often wished I'd understood it better, especially considering how easy it is to misinterpret all the studies forever being touted to advance public agendas. Mark Twain once wrote, "There are liars, damned liars, and statisticians," and he wasn't the only wag to wax philosophical on this topic. Some of my favorite quotes include Jorge Luis Borges' "Democracy is an abuse of statistics"; Rex Stout's "There are two kinds of statistics: the kind you look up and the kind you make up"; and George Bernard Shaw's "It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics." Perhaps the best advice comes from the brilliantly named Marilyn vos Savant, who writes: "Be able to analyze statistics, which can be used to support or undercut almost any argument." Today is the birthday of Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, whom some have anointed the "father of statistics," despite there being numerous contenders for the title. Danish statistician Anders Hald once called Fisher "a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science," while Richard Dawkins claims he's "the greatest biologist since Darwin." Speaking of statistics, there were 25 cases of Satist* (for statist* or satisf*) in OhioLINK today, and 906 in WorldCat.

(R. A. Fisher, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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