Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Basic Statistics Should Be a Core Competency of Every Citizen of the World

A medical educator recently argued in her blog that medical school admissions requirements should minimize requirements in math and science topics, especially areas like calculus and physics. There is no question that medicine, and even informatics for that matter, require knowledge and competency in many areas beyond math and science.

However, the problem with the math we teach to potential healthcare professionals and informaticians, indeed to everyone in society, is that we teach the wrong math. I took three semesters of calculus in college and can say that I have almost never used any of it. On the other hand, I had almost no education in statistics, a type of math I use not only in my work, but also in my function as an informed citizen. Indeed, most healthcare professionals, whether clinicians or researchers, use statistics daily. Likewise, as thoughtful citizens in society, we also encounter statistics daily in the news and other aspects of our lives.

For these reasons, I believe that statistics should be a core competency of every citizen in the modern world.

It is not even the mathematics in statistics that are most important, but rather the concepts and the thinking they engender. Every citizen in the world should understand the basic concepts of inferential statistics and be able to answer such questions as:
  • What does statistical significance mean? How is it different from a clinical (not necessarily in the medical context) significance?
  • What is the difference between absolute and relative risk? What is the meaning of large relative risk differences in the setting of small absolute risk?
  • In health-related topics, how do we discern and compare different types of health risks?
  • Also in health, what do sensitivity and specificity of diagnostic tests mean, and how does prevalence impact the risk of disease in the face of positive or negative diagnostic tests?
One of the most articulate advocates of this view is John Allen Paulos, whose books Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper inform us why basic numeracy and statistical competency are so important. These kinds of engaging writings, and basic education about statistics, should be a part of every high school education, not to mention in the education of clinicians and informaticians.

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