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Communications of the ACM

ACM Opinion

Why We Should Learn the Language of Data

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meaning of statistics

Ellen Lupton

"How can global warming be real when there’s so much snow?" Hearing that question—repeatedly—this past February drove Joseph Romm nuts. A massive snowstorm had buried Washington, D.C., and all across the capital, politicians and pundits who dispute the existence of climate change were cackling. The family of Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe built an igloo near the Capitol and put up a sign reading "Al Gore’s New Home." The planet can’t be warming, they said;  look at all this white stuff!

Romm—a physicist and climate expert with the Center for American Progress—spent a week explaining to reporters why this line of reasoning is so wrong. Climate change, he said, is all about trend lines. You don't observe it by looking out the window but by analyzing decades' worth of data. Of course, snowstorm spin is possible only if the public (and journalists) are statistically illiterate. "A lot of this is counterintuitive," Romm admits.

Statistics is hard. But that's not just an issue of individual understanding; it's also becoming one of the nation's biggest political problems. We live in a world where the thorniest policy issues increasingly boil down to arguments over what the data mean. If you don't understand statistics, you don't know what's going on—and you can't tell when you're being lied to. Statistics should now be a core part of general education. You shouldn't finish high school without understanding it reasonably well—as well, say, as you can compose an essay.

From Wired
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