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Looking hard for something that is not Zika to opine about!

Generally tired of talking about Zika, so I thought I would recommend a recent read to those in our audience who shrink from reading anything about statistics. The tome is titled,The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom,by Stephen Stigler, the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of Chicago. He asks "What is statistics?" Then, in language accessible to a lay audience, sets out to distinguish statistics from math and provide an account of the discipline's history and to "articulate the central intellectual core of statistical reasoning." The historical context that pervades the book is a particular delight and adds a layer of pragmatism that was often missing in my course work. 

His pillars are covered in seven chapters and 240 pages. I can paraphrase his language. The first is the value of reducing or compressing (i.e. discarding) data. Think about how much a number like the mean of a set of observations tells you. The value of adding to data beyond a certain point diminishes (geometrically in most cases). When we measure probability (e.g. make statistical inferences), we can create value when we are cautious, and chaos when we are not or when we are rigid (think of p values). The internal variation of data can be measured and will contribute enormously to inference. Asking questions from alternate perspectives yields different and often useful answers. Planning and designing before one observes are critical to controlling and measuring the important inputs that influence an outcome. Finally, there is the value of subtracting what you know from what you observe and studying what's leftover (residuals in the jargon) to find more complete explanations of a data set. 

There is a bit of algebra and a tiny amount of calculus in the text, but they can largely be ignored if you are mathematically disinclined. I tried the book on my best friend, a retired editor of computer publications-he told me to get a life-but who knew he was a philistine? At the end of the book, a non-scientist, blood center CEO (and some of the rest of us) will be in a better position to keep his/her medical director (or CFO), more honest than he or she was before reading it. 

Citation: Stigler SM.The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom. 2016. Harvard University Press.

Louis Katz, MD; Chief Medical Officer; lkatz@americasblood.org

 

 


Posted: 05/27/2016 | By: Louis Katz, MD; Chief Medical Officer | Permalink
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