Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Damned statistics


At a conference talk on the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology, the speaker quoted a relative issuing the commonplace anti-statistics apothegm “You can prove anything with statistics”. It’s a funny sort of claim, because it is self-undermining. Outside of a seminar on Popperian scientific philosophy no one would say “you can prove anything with numerology” or “you can prove anything with astrology”. Those who are not in thrall to these methods of divination find them either entertaining or ridiculous, but 

Is it because statistics is too abstruse for ordinary people to criticise? No one says, you can prove anything with quantum mechanics. Or, for that matter, mathematics.

Statistics is sufficiently precise and rigid and generally reliable to be authoritative, but leaves enough flexibility for experts to disagree and for manipulative misapplications to still hew close to standard procedure, and sufficiently abstruse that most people can’t figure out whether they’re being manipulated.

An interesting parallel is the Shakespearean dictum “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”

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