Friday, 25 October 2013

week 8 blogging question

This week's blogging question is prompted in part by Glen's comments on statistical literacy from our lecture this week, and partly by an NPR article on scorekeeping in baseball published in the summer but worth revisiting as the World Series gets going.  Alva Noë's fine essay points out that although few fans today maintain the old tradition of watching ball games with scoresheet and pencil in hand, the practice should not be mistaken for dispassionate number-crunching. Rather, close observation and recording of details -- combined with the exercise of judgment about, say, whether or not a play constitutes an error -- should be recognized as a different kind of engagement with the game. As 
Noë suggests, attending to the myriad details that make up a single play focuses the mind on the complexity of the event in ways that simply watching and listening to the announcers cannot. As Sherlock Holmes often points out to his companions Watson and Lestrade, we see but we don't observe. The act of recording the data generated by a baseball game, and especially of counting and analyzing them, helps us to observe patterns and details we might otherwise see but never comprehend. The same argument could be made for quantitative methods in social research: counting, measuring, and analyzing for statistical patterns can reveal dimensions of our lived experience that aren't available to the observer any other way. 

Supposedly Einstein had a sign on the wall of his office at Princeton that read "Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts." I believe this is true, but I also believe there are stories that can only be told by numbers. What are some of the significant things you've learned about the world that took the form of statistics? On Wednesday I told the story of when I learned about gender differences in pay and promotion among the faculty at the university where I was doing my PhD. Are there any statistics that have struck home with you? How were those stats derived from data? How were they communicated such that they'd have a human resonance beyond cold, abstract numbers? Another way to answer this question could be to share an example of a data visualization that you believe to be especially eloquent or insightful, such as the Minard flow map of Napoleon's march on Moscow, which I discussed on Wednesday.

Enjoy the World Series -- and go [insert team name here]!!

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