Calculus is Overrated: Why We Should Prioritize Statistics

By Neel Guha and Amy Shen

Calculus is Overrated: Why We Should Prioritize Statistics

In 1984 George Orwell said that “2+2=5”.

In 2016, Brexit supporters said that 350 million pounds could be spent on the National Health Service every week if Britain left the European Union (EU).

Several weeks ago, Donald Trump claimed — again — that millions of people illegally voted in the election.

Virtually everyone would consider the first statement ludicrous. Manipulation of a plainly obvious mathematical statement like “2+2=4” is what made 1984 so striking. Yet, the second and third statements — despite being patently false — continue to convince many in our society. They represent perhaps the most dangerous aspect of our ominous “post-truth world” — the opportunity for blatant falsehoods or misrepresentations to thrive because of statistical illiteracy.

From political polls to toaster ovens, our lives are rapidly becoming digitized. Experts predict that by 2020, 6 gigabytes of new information will be generated every hour — for every individual on the planet. This explosion in data has incredible potential to allow the average person to learn much more about the world, and view it more empirically than ever before.

But accompanying this wave of data is an increased potential for statistics to mislead. It’s dangerously easy to cherry-pick and misuse statistics to exaggerate or manipulate the truth. And alarmingly, this misconstruing of information is often unintentional: politicians may only represent data furthering their position, journalists may miscite statistics, and scientists may draw conclusions from insufficient data sets.

How can we combat this misinformation? To prevent data from deceiving rather than enlightening, everyone should understand statistics. Everyone should understand the methods that generated the numbers they read in newspapers and reports.

To accomplish this, we need to improve our teaching of statistics in America, particularly in high schools. Most Stanford students consider high school a stepping stone to the intellectual rigor of university. But for many Americans, high school is the last formal schooling they will receive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that in 2014, just 65.9 percent of high school graduates had enrolled in college. In other words, high school is often the last opportunity to shape students into informed, prepared citizens before they leave the education system and enter the public sphere.

As of 2015, however, only 8% of graduating seniors have taken an AP Statistics course, and 77% have never taken any form of a statistics course whatsoever. The current US high school math curriculum is dominated by algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. While these topics are certainly important, the average student’s time may be more effectively spent studying statistics. In high school — where students have yet to declare a speciality — we should focus on teaching general and directly functional skills.

Calculus is more useful for students pursuing majors in science or engineering. Statistics, on the other hand, is not only necessary for being an informed citizen, but is useful for almost every major and career. It’s indicative that Stanford offers statistics courses in almost every department from Anthropology to Public Policy. A 2016 LinkedIn study found statistical analysis to be the second-most valued skill in job candidates across all fields. The key ideas taught in even an introductory statistics class — randomness, distributions, and probability — provide a framework for analyzing the world. Statistics is necessary for analyzing news reports, understanding scientific results, and quantifying any phenomenon. Calculus simply lacks this universal applicability.

Improving statistical literacy should be one of America’s top educational priorities. Since high school will be the last step of many Americans’ education, reforming high school curricula is the most effective strategy to improve statistical literacy. But if changing high school curricula across the nation sounds too optimistic, a first step could be to institute a statistics requirement across all majors at Stanford. If Stanford’s mission is to “qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life,” we must give statistical literacy the emphasis it deserves.

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