The Science That Know All
Statistics have shown that in the 18th century, during the time of the smallpox epidemic, milkmaids who had previously caught cowpox were less likely to get smallpox. As a result of this observation, the smallpox vaccine was
Statistics can also show us what type of transportation is the most dangerous, which country in the world
has the chubbiest population, and how many people in Sweden have the last name “Karlson.” Statistics knows
A Science with Status
The word “statistics” came from the Latin word status, which means a “composition or state.” Simply put, statistics shows the state of affairs in a field or phenomenon. It is a science that looks at patterns while analyzing large volumes of data. For example, if researchers wanted to understand how frequently boys or girls are born, they could not just use one or a few families. Rather, they have to analyze data from a large number of families, and only by doing this, they can avoid errors in conclusions. Statistics shows that the frequency of boys and girls being born is roughly the same.
We have used statistics since ancient times when states and writing systems were first developed (about 4–5 thousand years ago). For example, even in Ancient Egypt and China, they conducted censuses — gathering large amounts of data about the populations living in their territories. The Bible even mentions a census conducted by the Israelite King David about three thousand years ago.
Ancient data collection methods differed, but one of the most basic methods was to conduct a survey while doing rounds in residential districts. Censuses of this type are still used around the world to this day. In order to conduct a population census in a country, statisticians tour apartment buildings and houses. At that time, the information was manually entered into specialized tables (now, into computer databases), and carefully guarded. This
process was necessary for a government to know, for example, how many men could be drafted into the army in the event of a war, or how many able-bodied people could work and pay taxes, and so on.
Milkmaids and Smallpox
Do statistics impact our everyday life? The better question is: how don’t they? In the Middle Ages, there was a terrible series of epidemics, including
smallpox (a very contagious viral infection which often leads to a painful death). “The Black Death,” as it was
called, was absolutely disastrous. In Europe alone, up to half a million people died of this disease each year in the Middle Ages.
The only consolation for those who were ill and survived was the knowledge that they would never again contract
smallpox. True, they were often disfigured, scarred, and
covered with pockmarks on their faces and bodies. This is
the disease’s way of asking you to “remember it.”
But statistics did not only give rise to upsetting results.
Scientists who were studying data about the illness in the end of the 18th century took note of the fact that milkmaids were far less likely to contract the illness. It became apparent that those who were in frequent contact with cattle often contract-
ed “cowpox.” Cowpox goes through the human body quite easily, safely, and without unpleasant consequences. Most importantly, those who recovered from cowpox would never get the black and infectious smallpox. So, thanks to the use of statistics, a vaccination was developed. Vaccines are small doses of the disease that are administered to a person. After this exposure, the body naturally fights the disease, hence preventing it from spreading. Even the word
vaccination comes from the Latin word vaccus, or “cow.”
Statistics help to preserve our health even today. The effectiveness of new medicines and treatment methods must be confirmed through statistical data. For example, in Russia, treatment using homoeopathic dilutions (extremely small doses of a given substance which have been diluted into a solution that is over 99.9% water or alcohol in
composition) were found to be ineffective, meaning that the supposed “benefits” of this treatment are not supported by statistics.
Why Drive If You Can Fly?
Statistics can both reveal our unreasonable fears and, on the other hand, show us real dangers. It is known, for example, that about 40% of people are afraid of flying in aeroplanes, and most people consider air travel to be the most dangerous mode of transport.
However, statistics demonstrate that the most dangerous modes of transportation are actually by motorcycles and mopeds. These are followed in second place by cars; trains in third place; river and sea vessels in fourth; and aeroplanes are the absolute last.
It is apparent that, despite the fact that aeroplane crashes are quite infrequent, they are discussed very often by media outlets.
But consider: do these same media outlets dedicate nearly as much time to car or motorcycle accidents? Meanwhile, statistics show that the rate of death in automobile accidents is 2.5 times higher than that of aeroplane crashes (the average number of deaths per 100 million kilometres fl own en route is 0.9375 and 0.375, respectively).
Despite this, the number of people who are afraid to ride in a car is almost zero!
And Did You Know?
Don’t think that with statistics you can only count the number of sick people or accidents. Using statistics, we can learn that: 9% of people on the earth are left-handed;
about one fi fth of the world’s gold reserves are found in South Africa; only 1% of the world’s population has higher education; in Sweden, there are over 200,000 people with the surname Karlson; the mass of human skin is one-sixteenth of the mass of the whole body; and much more.
Why would we want to know all of this? Sometimes, it’s not really obvious why. But let’s recall the smallpox example: at first glance, people from that time also thought that knowing the incidence of disease by profession was useless information, but it ended up turning the world on its head!
But let’s look at nowadays. Statistics knows which country’s citizens are the heaviest in the world — two-thirds of the United States population is overweight.
It knows that Japanese citizens live the longest in the world (life expectancy there is, on average, 83.7 years). This knowledge has practical uses. Obesity creates huge problems in public health, which means that it is critical to find the source of the issue and decide how to address it.
Statistics, once again to the rescue, demonstrates whether or not these methods are effective. And data on the life expectancy of a population can help us learn how
to increase this number worldwide. For example, in New Zealand, the national
life expectancy in 2016 was 83.4 years for women and 79.9 for men. Interestingly, the gap between male and female life expectancy has decreased by almost 6 years
since the 1970s, but life expectancy for both genders has increased in that time. This is a strong indicator of a nation successfully developing toward better public health.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
These words of the famous American writer Mark Twain became the grounds for many jokes about statistics. There are even sayings and jokes related to statistics.
“If you live to one hundred, you’ve got it made. Few people die past that age.” Or “If one man eats a whole chicken at night, and another goes to bed without dinner,
then, on average, each of them ate a half of a chicken.”
They all basically state that if you look only at statistics, your idea of reality can become very skewed. For example, if you calculate the average salary of the employees in a company by a single common figure, then the value you receive as a result is likely to be very misleading; when calculating, the significantly higher salaries of the upper management will be piled in with those of the rest of the employees.
In 1954, the American writer Darrell Huff even wrote a book with the colourful title How to Lie with Statistics. It details the various ways of distorting statistical data and faulty modes of analysis that lead to unreliable conclusions. This is just one example of this type of book. In 1936, presidential elections were held in the United States. On the eve of the election, one very established magazine decided to conduct a telephone survey of several million subscribers to predict who would win the election.
The result showed that the candidate from the Republican party would win. But in reality, the Democratic candidate won the election. The distortion of statistics here lay in the fact that the the only voters interviewed were those with a higher income — that is, those who both possessed
a home phone and could afford to subscribe to a weekly magazine in the midst of the American Great Depression (at that time, both of these were prohibitively expensive).
Evidently, the poll was conducted only among wealthy voters, who traditionally supported Republican Party candidates.
Therefore, when certain statistical data is presented, we must pay attention to their sources, and trust only professionals.
Because statistics is a science and should be researched only by specialists