Back in 2007, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in Britain ruled that the oral health manufacturing giant Colgate could not use its claim that “More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate” or that its brand was “used and recommended by most dentists.” These bans were based on the finding that Colgate had used deceptive statistics to derive its numbers.
For instance, when reading the original claim, consumers would likely think that four out of five dentists had recommended Colgate over its competitors. Instead, ASA revealed that dentists in the study were allowed to recommend more than one brand. The numbers were less impressive than Colgate had made them sound.
The ASA explained that “The claim would be understood by readers to mean that 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate over and above other brands, and the remaining 20 per cent would recommend different brands. […] Because we understood that another competitor’s brand was recommended almost as much as the Colgate brand by the dentists surveyed, we concluded that the claim misleadingly implied 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate toothpaste in preference to all other brands.”
This sort of fact-fudging is concerning because numbers permeate our lives. Sports fans pore over statistics of their favorite teams and players. Consumers are bombarded with product information on billboards, TV, and the internet. Pundits and politicians rattle off figures to tell voters how better or worse things have gotten. People tune into the weather channel to see the chance of rain. Some data are truly informative, some are twisted to support a point, and others are outright fabricated. And yet, every day, we are inundated with a deluge of numbers we must continually process.
So how can we make sense of it all?
According to Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at Dartmouth College and bestselling author of Naked Economics, one of the best tools that we have to separate the wheat from the chaff is statistics, a system used to gather, organize, and interpret data. In short, statistics helps us to conceptualize information by allowing individuals to understand how data is collected and how it can be interpreted and communicated. Wheelan states, “Statistics is one of those things that people need to understand in order to be an informed citizen, especially the use and abuse of data.”
Given its importance, descriptive statistics ought to ascend from its status as an elective to the pantheon of required high school mathematics, next to the trinity of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Statistics is “also more intuitive and applied than other kinds of high school math courses (e.g. calculus or trig),” states Wheelan, “so it certainly strikes me as sensible to make basic statistics an integral part of any high school math curriculum.”
In doing so, students will be better prepared to make informed decisions as adults over a wide range of subjects. For instance, as consumers, students will learn to question and be skeptical of advertisement claims. As voters, they will be able to interpret basic socioeconomic data touted or slammed by candidates, understand how surveys and polls work, and be aware of how data can be skewed—intentionally or unintentionally—through bias.
By incorporating more knowledge of statistics into our everyday lives, we will be able to foster an educated citizenry, helping future generations to make sense of our increasingly data-deluged world.
Check out my new guide aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)