Since 2001 I have been writing regularly on issues that relate to spirituality, religion, Torah, Judaism, current events, Israel and the Jewish world in general. But recently I have realized that having been such a regular writer and commentator I was now at serious risk of either repeating or contradicting myself on any given topic. Given this realization my output of popular columns has slowed down considerably. But that is about to change.
In mid 2013 I was accepted into a PhD program with the aim of studying the impact of the Purpose Navigator program I created at Youth Directions. This started me on a journey of scientific discovery that included the study of statistics. The scientific method was not new to me of course, my father was a scientist who had a PhD in chemistry. But at the insistence of my mother, as a child and teenager I was sent to Hasidic (ultra religious Orthodox Jewish) schools and Yeshivot where we were not taught any general studies. Thus, whilst I had obtained a master’s degree from University College London in the humanities, as I entered my PhD program in the sciences I lacked much of the mathematical and computer programing knowledge necessary.
Fortunately my supervisor was interested enough in the research I proposed and had enough confidence in my ability to learn the necessary skills and gain the prerequisite knowledge. So I began studying mathematics, from the basics all the way through matrix algebra and then statistics as well as the required calculus. Along the way three things became apparent.
- There were few resources that explained basic concepts in statistics without reverting to complicated mathematical formulas and thereby scaring off the novice.
- The ideas underlying most of statistics are intuitive.
- Many people are remarkably ignorant about elementary statistical concepts.
Without a basic understanding of statistics, however, we open ourselves up to be fooled and tricked by hucksters and con artists.
It is paramount, for example, that we know what and what does not constitute proof of causation. The public ought to know the difference between anecdotal evidence and scientific evidence. In an election season the electorate should be able to differentiate between an online opinion survey and a scientific opinion poll. Yet, it has become apparent that not only is the public often ignorant of these basic ideas, some of the candidates running for the highest office in the land are as well.
The truth is that to have a good grasp of some of these ideas, it is important to first understand concepts such as the normal distribution, probability, the law of large numbers, the central limit theorem, p-values, measures of central tendency, variation, regression to the mean, and the list goes on. Without a strong numbers background, understanding the intuition behind these ideas played an outsized role for me in being able to grasp fundamental ideas in statistics. Instead of writing about religion, politics and current events (although I may do that too from time to time), I am now challenging myself to explain these ideas (and perhaps some other scientific ideas as well) on my website using only intuition and no numbers or formulas.
The first post of this topic, on the normal distribution can be found here.