Statistics: why doesn't everybody love them?


I am not a statistician, but I love statistics. Statistics are facts, and when used for good, they are an important ingredient in sound decision making about almost any issue, whether it's about government policy or your personal behavior.

The use of statistics has gone way beyond counting things, computing averages, and predicting trends. We can now apply sophisticated models to answer very specific questions in an objective way.

In a published editorial yesterday, Jim Goodnight highlights the important role of statistics (and of course, statisticians) in the world today.

Dr. Goodnight selected some important examples. He mentioned the Dartmouth Atlas Project, which sought to answer a number of questions including, "does higher spending in end-of-life care lead to better patient outcomes?" The answer was No, there was no evidence that more intense care (which can burn through money quickly) leads to better survival or satisfaction. That's an important finding that might be used to influence policies for how Medicare dollars are spent. (You can view reports and download data at

But how to approach end-of-life care is not an objective issue; it's one that is full of emotion and intuition. If it's your life, or the life of a loved one, your instinct would be to "spend whatever it takes" to provide the best outcome. Do you care what the statistics tell you?

Here's another example that's closer to home for us in North Carolina. The Wake County Public School System has been embroiled in much debate about student assignment methods -- what's the best way to assign students to schools to achieve the optimal socioeconomic balance, reduce bus commutes, limit overcrowding, and avoid "churn" via reassignments every year?

SAS has been a partner with the Wake County Public School System on this problem; some of the findings were published in this SAS Global Forum paper: SAS/OR (OPTMODEL) and JMP were used in the study.

SAS also supports the school system with EVAAS (education value-added assessment system). This provides a method to measure the effectiveness of schools and school systems across a variety of disciplines and predict future student achievement. It provides tremendous information, but it's not always what people want to hear.

School assignments and how to measure student performance -- these issues are often charged with emotion as well, and that can drown out the facts. Statistics aren't always given a prominent role when making decisions around these issues; they certainly play a minor role in the debates that we hear about in the news.

It's my hope that as we celebrate the first World Statistics Day, we will strive to educate our young people about the power of statistics (and it's even on Facebook, where all the kids hang out these days). It's important that we teach them how to ask critical questions and to demand solid answers, and to know that such answers are achievable when data are available. Human intuition and philosophy help to guide us when the facts are unknowable, but thanks to science and statistics, we've got a lot more in the "knowable" pile than we've ever had.


About Author

Chris Hemedinger

Director, SAS User Engagement

+Chris Hemedinger is the Director of SAS User Engagement, which includes our SAS Communities and SAS User Groups. Since 1993, Chris has worked for SAS as an author, a software developer, an R&D manager and a consultant. Inexplicably, Chris is still coasting on the limited fame he earned as an author of SAS For Dummies

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