The Only Subject that Counts
In processing How to Read Numbers this week, I continually thought about the characters from the hit comedy ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ The emphasis on proving or disproving equations, ensuring there is accuracy in even the smallest of details, and communicating clearly were what Sheldon, Leonard, and the rest of the crew (minus Penny) did each week. For me, How to Read Numbers was reminiscent of my undergraduate statistics and research courses and yet it brought a new dimension with the utilization of current events as the examples used. Chivers’ break down ten key elements to pay attention to when studying, reporting, and believing statistics which include finding the context, having knowledge of the sample size, impacts of various biases, and the cherry-picking of figures to support a particular view. As they stated many times in the book, the numbers that are presented across media outlets pertaining to Covid-19 are likely not true and accurate, regardless of which station you are watching because we simply don’t know enough given how (relatively) short it has been studied thus far.
I appreciated the encouragement to academics reading the book as that is the realm I live in. I consistently have conversations with students about critical thinking, analyzing and research the source before reposting something on social media, and the importance of asking more questions to get a fuller picture so they have confidence in what and why they align with any particular stance on a topic. There is an increasing awareness among faculty and staff of students arriving for college largely underprepared and without knowledge or skillsets that would have been considered basic standards just a decade ago. As Chivers’ discusses, I have been able to see the inflated GPAs arriving as the pressure on high school teachers to have their students perform at higher levels has increased over the years.
This reading was a great reminder as I go into the next phase of the NPO and prototype creation. With my focus being on providing an international education for all university students, it will be critical for me to include in whatever the outcome, a component focused on researching, understanding, and interpreting important statistics at a global level. As I am often in the habit of doing, I will likely encourage students to look at news sources from outside of their home context to find a more balanced and accurate portrayal of what is going on in their own country as what is being presented to them directly is likely fueled by alternative motives. Additionally, it will be significant for students to learn how other cultures and people groups may interpret statistics differently to ensure they do what they can to curb any biases from impacting their end result.
While I feel that I can align with what How to Read Numbers emphases throughout, I also closed the book feeling a bit deflated with a more acute knowledge of just how challenging it is to find truth on any given topic. If media can’t be a reliable source of truth nor academic publications themselves, it feels as if the ability to make an informed decision on anything is nearly impossible or overwhelming. So I find myself going back to the source that I know is true and am comforted by the fact that is outside of his ability to be anything but who He is, which is truth; and in doing so am gently asked which kingdom I belong to and am pursuing this day. While I feel it is critical to be wise, knowledgeable, and exercise the capacities I’ve been equipped with by the Lord, I also must keep the eternal perspective in view when it comes to what numbers and topics I am focused on. May I embrace my finite understanding as it only lead me to lean into the one that has infinite understanding of truth all the more.
7 responses to “The Only Subject that Counts”
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Kayli, Beautiful post – clear, concise and integrative. Thank you! I resonate with statistical misinformation within higher education. As an admissions counselor, I’m evaluated by the number of students I “bring” in. The demographical make up is then spun (not maliciously) into a narrative of diversity and inclusion. Curious how stats are used in your department at Vanguard to create narratives?
Oh the pressures of stats for an admissions counselor! I feel for you.
Thankfully, I focus on international and experiential education so the data I tend to utilize and produce are more assessment related to our study and service programs. Most times I’m producing the percentages of student participants as compared to national data and the like. I have been very intentional in working with our social science professors that teach statistical methods to create and review assessment materials regularly to ensure the mitigation of bias and that we are not simply creating a survey that meets our needs.
There is however a significant emphasis from administration for clear stats on ROIs when proposing or piloting new programs to ensure that we are developing opportunities that are affordable and accessible to students while still being viable for the university budget to handle.
Great post, Kayli. I enjoyed your focus on the students that you obviously care for deeply. Your application of this book to that population would be fascinating to watch unfold. Again, I love the “practical” perspective you took with this read.
Kayli, some day I hope to write as well as you do! I had a similar thought after reading this book when you said, “I also closed the book feeling a bit deflated with a more acute knowledge of just how challenging it is to find truth on any given topic.” I wondered if I can trust much of what I come across in my research on my NPO. I also wondered how much of what I wrote last year included numbers that support what I believe to be true about my topic. Perhaps the awareness of our own confirmation bias helps us to do more work with the numbers than we would ordinarily do. All the best in your work with your students and your project!
Kayli I appreciated your reflection on how incoming college students arrive underprepared. When I was reading that section of the book I kept thinking about how secondary education is more focused on teaching to the test instead of integration of learning and critical thinking. The educational system is, if not completely broken, is severely fractured.
The more you share about the ways you are weaving the readings with your NPO the more in awe I am of you. You have a beautiful grasp of how to lead these students.
I understand your sense of being deflated. I wrote a note in the book that echoed something very similar. How would things look if we don’t forget what Friedman says about having courage to balance data with trusting what we know and be at peace if we make mistakes?
I am so glad you talked about your feelings of being “deflated” as you processed this book. You are so right, where can one find an authentic truth source? Jesus. I am so grateful, that like you I have learned to balance out my perspective with sources outside of the US. While they too, have their biases it opens up other ways of looking at the information. Take for example, Sweden and their handling of Covid. Much of the global that saw how the Swedes handled the virus early on, thought they had gotten it wrong. Those same counties continue in various levels of lockdown. While Sweden never forced anything and they mostly back to regular life. But there is always more to every story i.e. culture, way of life, the definition of normal social distancing.
I’m curious how this is effecting your NPO as you move forward?
Thank you, Kayli, for your thoughtful reflection on Chivers and Chivers and how their insights relate both to your workplace and to your NPO. To your point about encouraging students to listen and learn globally about how statistics, numbers, categories, etc. are understood outside of their own context, I’ve learned two (at least) interesting things from our friends, colleagues, and partners in the Middle East (that part of Western Asia where I spend most of my time in any case). First, the degree to which they have been impacted by the category obsession we have in the USA. We want everyone to fit into a box that can be checked on a form. One friend shared it this way–it had never occurred to him to think about what percentage of his friends were Muslim or Christian or to which group within these larger categories they belonged until he started reading the headlines in Western news sources about the Muslim/Christian divide or the Sunni/Shia divide. That was an eye-opening moment for me…the impact of how my culture (white/USA culture) thinks about and categorizes people of another place/context. The second comment came at a conference held in Cairo attended by local Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox from across the region, along with their Muslim colleagues from Sunni, Shia, Druzi, and Alawi communities. The way in which they understood ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ was completely other than what arises in a USA-based conversation when those terms are used. For these Middle Eastern participants coming from many different ethnic, cultural, and religious contexts, what they meant by ‘majority’ were those across the region who are working for mutual respect and the honoring of each others’ humanity in the face of a violent ‘minority’ seeking to use force to impose their interpretation of sacred texts on everyone else. It made me wonder how such an understanding of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ might shift the conversation in the USA. So much for us in the USA to learn from other people living in other places.