Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My mission . . .

should I decide to accept it -- actually I have decided to accept it, but I don't yet know if it's Mission Impossible -- is to develop a curriculum in probability and statistics, not for dummies, but for real people who are not math majors, or not necessarily any kind of majors, including people who have not attended college.

Naturally, that means I'll be trying out some stuff here. So you'll have to get used to it. I've thrown up posts from time to time on the subject, but now I'll have to be more systematic and, I also realize, more philosophical. Probabilistic reasoning is pervasive in science. The essentially probabilistic nature of most scientific propositions has essentially overturned the positivist theories of knowledge which once were considered the basic philosophy of science, and has also made the falsification criterion for scientific propositions obsolete, at least in its simple form.

Oh wait, that must seem like word salad to most people. I have to explain really basic stuff. Why do we think we know what we think we know? Why is it not a contradiction to say that science is a path to truth but most scientific findings are false? True fact! But not a defense of Paul Feyerabend, or post-modernism, or creationism or pseudoscience. What is taught in science classes, and the big important stuff that scientists believe, is true, in the sense of being as true as we can make it although probably not exactly true; but new scientific findings are out on the edge of what we don't know, not in the comfortable middle of what we do know. And in order to understand that, you have to understand probability and statistics, including that pesky Bayes fellow.

So I'll do my best.


JMT said...

Looking forward to this. Can you answer a basic question? Is the use of the concept 'risk factor' in any way a reaction to the fact that you often can't get RCT on a particular thing?

Cervantes said...

No, not really. An RCT can establish a risk factor in principle -- although usually not in practice for ethical reasons. But we speak of risk factors because most conditions are multi-factorial, resulting from interactions of various environmental influences with genetic predispositions, etc. So usually there's no single cause of a disease.

distracted by shiny objects said...

Bring it on!! Studies and statistics get thrown about quite a lot in the ICU where I work and are a big part of the risks vs. benefits decision-making process. I've become very interested in deciphering some of this data, so your project sounds like a god-send to me. Not a complete dummy or idiot, but the math lingo needs to be read a few times to make sense. Good luck to you, and thanks.