How I Made Friends with Statistics

Minitab Blog Editor | 21 March, 2012

Looking for a safe bet?  Here's one: People you know hate statistics.

You may even be one of them. So was I. See, math has never been my strong suit; I could understand the concepts easily enough, but I never liked solving math problems. I used to view anything involving math as an enemy, and avoided it like my life—or livelihood—depended on it. I became a professional writer and editor. I was good at it, and for a long time I was able to get by without doing a whole lot of math beyond the occasional balancing of my checkbook. Statistics wasn't even on my radar.

Then I began writing regularly about science and business, and suddenly I needed to become comfortable with, if not adept at, data analysis. One thing I quickly realized was that when you're analyzing data, there's actually not that much hands-on math involved: thanks to software, you can import the data and let the processors do the calculating.

One problem down.

But you still need to understand what the calculations mean.  What's a p-value?  What does r-squared tell you?  Understanding this part remained a struggle for me. Statistics for Dummies?  Yeah, it's on my bookshelf. Right next to the Cartoon Guide to Statistics and Innumeracy. Little by little, I acquired first a basic understanding and then a deepening appreciation for statistics. I got over my math phobia when I realized I could approach learning about statistics by treating it as a kind of language: focusing on the vocabulary opened the door to accepting the parts of statistics I felt less comfortable with. Little by little I became comfortable enough with analyzing data to pursue a master's degree in applied statistics.  This was quite a turnaround for a kid who avoided math classes as an undergrad just on principle.

Your livelihood also may depend on using statistics. Companies in every industry, in every country around the world, save millions  by implementing Six Sigma programs, applying the power of statistical methods to their problems. Where you find successful quality improvement initiatives, you’ll also find statistics. Evaluating a business process? Statistics give you an objective assessment of its effectiveness. Statistics help you distinguish factors that affect the bottom line from those that don’t. And statistics distinctly demonstrate the benefits of your efforts.

Clearly, there’s good reason to make friends with statistics, yet many people still shy away from it.

There are a lot of different ways you can get comfortable with statistics. I took a long and slow path, but I got there. With the amount of resources online now, I think it's probably a lot easier for most people to get up to speed. There are many good free resources, and even a lot of universities put their basic statistics classes online either for credit (i.e., you'll need to pay) or just as resources anyone can access. A quick Google search'll lead you to these.

If you're looking to learn statistics with an emphasis on quality improvement, and especially if you'll be using Minitab Statistical Software to do it, I urge you to check out Quality Trainer, which is our online quality statistics course. It teaches all the statistical concepts used in quality improvement by leading you through easy-to-follow, interactive examples based on real-life scenarios. Man, I wish this had been around when I was getting my feet wet in the data pool. As it is, I use Quality Trainer frequently just to review concepts or tools I haven't used in a while.

Some people like to walk, others prefer to run. From p-values to confidence intervals to regression, some people grasp statistical concepts quickly, while others take more time to digest the information. This diversity in learning styles can be challenging in group training. And I know one thing a lot of customers appreciate about Quality Trainer is that you don’t have to worry about whether you and your colleagues are all at the same level. Access to Quality Trainer is individualized, so everyone has the flexibility to spend as much—or as little—time on a topic as they need.

How did you learn to make friends with statistics?