Life Application of Statistical Bias
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Life Application of Statistical Bias

Statistical bias surrounds us, and its ability to morph fact into fiction is nearly unstoppable.

We all do it. We hear an extraordinary piece of news that defies the "norm", and we falsely attribute our choices to the things that we hear that confirm what we want to hear. When we do this, we ingnore the basic rules of statistics to our own detriment. For example, when the news reports that the world's oldest woman continued smoking until age 110, it validates millions of smokers' mistaken motivation to continue smoking. Such a piece of news suggests (and rather convincingly) that smoking is not harmful and may actually be beneficial until it is compared to the mountains of casualties from tobacco usage.

In elementary statistics, the basic rules for statistical usage are clearly enumerated and laid down. If a news agency wanted to be truly accurate, they would follow the report of a 120-year-old former smoker with millions of reports of those struggling to make it to 70, 65, or even 60. For this reason, news outlets should never be used as the basis for life decisions, especially if such information is reported as a singular non-scientific event. Even research that suggests a new or different correlation than prior knowledge should be taken with a grain of salt no matter where it is presented; flashy research that makes headlines is often refuted when subjected to a thorough critical and academic review.

The first concept of statistics is the bell curve; this curve takes the shape of its name and describes the typical incidence of events, such as the frequency of lung-related deaths as compared to years of smoking. Most of the deaths occur within a standard deviation that has a given year as its center. The standard deviations each contain a given percentage of the deaths and describe the probability of lung cancer at a certain number of years of smoking. Outliers are the cases that fall outside of the first two standard deviations (such as a very old or very young smoking-related death), and it is ironic that these abnormal and unusual cases are the ones that make the news.

What is important to remember, then, is that outliers can never serve as an application for the majority! Outliers are, in fact, the least-applicable statistic when a majority scheme is considered. If you want to apply statistical data to your own life, then take the research that employs carefully-constructed hypotheses based upon a sizable quantity of data. Research with a large and representative sample is the most likely to have a useful life application.

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Comments (1)

Good article. Out of votes today but t'd!