The Grammar of Science

Statistics is the grammar of science.
~ Karl Pearson

Now, for those who know me a bit longer, you will know that I absolutely love statistics. Since 2016, at the end of each year, I do a roundup post for Wicked Wednesday, where I share the statistics of the year, and also those from the beginning of the year. I love doing this. There is just something about statistics that’s kind of… magical.

Where does my love for statistics come from?

I was 22 when I signed up for the army, and on my very first day I had to report at a military unit in the south of the country. The commander seemed surprised when I told him I was reporting for duty, and sat looking at me for a long time, mumbling under his breath that he had no idea what work to give me. By then the South African Border War was coming to an end, and since I had not done any training by then, there was no way they would send me out anyway.

The commander suddenly waved with his hand: report at the personnel office and keep yourself busy with some statistics.

I had never done any statistics before, and so has no one else in that unit. I was angry. Angry that they made me feel like I wasn’t welcome, angry that they had no work for me, and angry that the commander made it sound like he was telling me to go play with my dolls. It was 1989, and the only computers they had back then were the mainframe kind. No way to keep statistics on that.

It took me a day to make a plan. I ordered some notebooks, different colored pens, and started clicking on things on the mainframe. By the end of the first month there was statistics about the number of personnel in the unit, their gender, age groups, level of education, years of service, ranks. You name it, I turned it into a statistic. This grew… and grew.

By the end of the third month I asked permission to order a personal computer. I had to go to the commander who gave me the statistics task and when he saw the statistics I had kept, there was surprise on his face. Imagine my satisfaction when he started using the stats I had, and I got the personal computer I asked for?

I worked at that unit for 3.5 years, before I was transferred to a different unit. Before I was allowed to leave, I had to train my successor to do my job, as the unit couldn’t go without the stats anymore.

Starting something from scratch, gathering the data, and later seeing the different graphs I could make using the computer, and the trends that could be seen in the data… my love for stats never disappeared after that.

What stats do I keep today?

No, here I am not going to talk about Wicked Wednesday, because all of you know I already keep stats for that. And, I am not going to talk about the Smut Marathon either, because yes, I am also keeping stats for that.

I work for a company that is very numbers-driven, and where I first ran the general administration, I have taken a step back (mental health reasons) and am now nothing more than just an administrative worker. However, I still work with numbers every day, and much of that has to do with statistics. My mom had been a Financial Manager, and I had always told her that I would never want to work with numbers all day long. I always told her to leave the general admin to me, and she can do the financial admin. It turns out I was wrong, and somehow I should’ve known it, because of my love for statistics.

Every month I supply information to management from the different files I keep during the month, and it makes me feel so good when they write reports for senior management and the head office, using my data!

I frequently remember that day the commander waved me away with his hands to ‘just do some stats’ and realize he had done me a favor, because I had to start everything from scratch back then. It has been the preparation for what I am doing today, and for the past number of years I am working for this company.

Numbers don’t lie

I look at those words — numbers don’t lie — and I know people will differ from me, because numbers can lie. Statistics can be twisted to fit our goals. I mean, wasn’t it Winston Churchill who said: “I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself.”

I know statistics can be doctored, and I also know that when two people look at the same numbers they derive different things from it. I don’t like my numbers to lie. All the numbers I keep record of during the month, and report at the end of the month, must add up, or I will not report them. I will sit for an entire day looking for an error if some of my checks reveal an error. My manager sometimes tells me ‘just give me the numbers’, even when they know there’s still a number in it. I do as I’m told, but I will always keep on searching for the error, and correct it.

I love doing statistics, making graphs, reporting trends, but I prefer to do it with honest numbers, and not lie to make things look better (or worse) than they are. That’s when statistics become dull, when they don’t reflect the truth.

© Rebel’s Notes
Image from Pixabay

12 thoughts on “The Grammar of Science

  1. My longest exam in university was a graduate level Stats exam. We started it at 8:00 in the morning. It was an open book exam, and we were told to bring a lunch. The exam was deadly. At supper time the prof ordered some snacks and we worked on. The first person to leave that exam left at 7:30 pm. I think the second person left close to 8:00. At 8:45, the prof told us it was time to finish up. So we left a bit before nine. An almost 13 hour exam. And as only 3-4 people had finished at that point, it really was a longer exam that that! (~25 of us writing this test).
    I don’t need to do stats if I can avoid them! lol. But your accomplishment was amazing. I can share in your pride as the officer granted you the computer and more importantly the respect for doing what you’d done! Stay safe!

    1. Wow, an exam of 13 hours? That’s ridiculous. I can imagine that after that you definitely don’t want anything to do with stats! Oh man! To be honest, as much as I love stats, if I had to work with that all day every day, I would probably not have loved it as much. Everything should always be in balance 🙂

  2. I don’t think numbers lie. I see a bit more from a science point of view that the numbers are usually right but it is more a question of what one measures, how, what kind of model is used and so on. I guess I like the epistemological side of statistics.

    I have to provide numbers to my organization as well and sometimes I tell them that whatever number I can gather will be useless for making a decision (because I can’t measure exactly, lack of other data or other independent variables) but they still want that number. Something about a number that makes people think it must be “exact”.

    1. Oh yes, sometimes I have to give similar useless numbers too, and I have learned to just shrug when they demand the numbers, even knowing it’s useless. Sometimes the higher management just want to ‘fool’ themselves, it seems.

  3. Haha, I love how you showed them that your role and contribution is in fact so good that they couldn’t let you go before you trained your successor and that you set it up yourself, turning it into something important which they never thought it would be.

    1. The day I left that unit, I did it with pain and pride in my heart. Pain, because I would much rather have stayed; pride because I knew I left behind a ‘legacy’.

    1. To be honest, not all numbers interest me, and some stats get a bit too complicated for my liking 😉

  4. Great post Marie – but then I do like reading about people and their involvement with statistics because as you know I have a fascination fro them too
    xx

  5. I’ve never been good with numbers … and often lose count in the middle of a … task !!!
    So I am always impressed with your organisational skills.
    Xxx – K

    1. Thank you, K, and I am always impressed with your confidence that I see in all your images 🙂 xox

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