Monday, May 14, 2007

Public understanding of statistics

One of the biggest problems in homebirth advocacy is that most homebirth advocates do not understand statistics. This problem is not restricted to homebirth advocates and represents a serious problem for society in the US. Americans are exposed to a tremendous amount of statistical information and are required to make many decisions based on statistical information, but lack any foundation in understanding and utilizing statistics.

A recent article in the journal Public Understanding of Science asks the question Do we need a public understanding of statistics?
We live in a statistics-rich society: statistics permeates many aspects of life—from media, health, and work to citizenship. In the media, we can observe a growing emphasis on statistical results. This is particularly the case in health and medical reporting which tend to be the most compelling scientific issues for citizens ... The understanding of these statistical components is crucial to help citizens participate in public debate and arrive at political decisions.
Statistical misunderstandings are very common and lead to cynicism about science and medicine.
Statistics requires the ability to consider things from a probabilistic perspective, and to employ quantitative technical and abstract concepts such as significance, margin of errors, and representativeness. Since these concepts are difficult to understand, statistical misunderstandings can often be observed in the everyday but also in the media and research results. It is important to clear up these misunderstandings, as they lead to the misuse of study results, and the development of a distrustful or cynical attitude toward statistics.
Homebirth advocates often have trouble understanding the risks of homebirth because they have minimal civic scientific literacy, defined as:
Miller has defined civic scientific literacy as a three-dimensional construct. Precisely, a scientifically literate citizen needs to have: "(1) a vocabulary of basic scientific constructs sufficient to read competing views in a newspaper or magazine; (2) an understanding of the process or nature of scientific inquiry; and (3) some level of understanding of the impact of science and technology on individuals and on society"
In the context of homebirth advocacy, I find the second to be especially important:
The second dimension of civic scientific literacy requires that an individual display a minimal understanding of the empirical basis of scientific inquiry.
That is why I often suggest that homebirth advocates ready, study and learn about the scientific method and basic statistical analysis.


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