The Wisdom of Asking Silly Statistics Questions

by Karen Grace-Martin

I’ve written about this before–there is just something about statistics that makes people feel…well, not so smart.

This makes people v-e-r-y reluctant to ask questions.

This fact really struck me years and years ago.  Hit me hard.

I was still doing in-person consulting at a university.  Now, you have to realize this was an Ivy League university and every single student there is among the smartest and best educated people in the world.  There is no doubt that everyone there is objectively smart.

Even so one day I had a consultation with a grad student and as we went over her analysis, she starting turning pink. Her hands were shaking a little.

I was flabbergasted that talking with me was that intimidating.  I mean, I’m nice.  I respect my clients and I know they’re brilliant.

I can see they know their field.  I don’t expect them to know mine, even if they expect themselves to.

But I realized she didn’t know I think she’s brilliant or that I’ll be respectful.

Since then, I’ve had real respect for the guts it takes to ask for statistics help.  Even brilliant people feel stupid sometimes.

There are Good Reasons to be Wary

The other phenomenon I’ve seen is the opposite.  The few who are confident they understand it all.  Even the parts they don’t.

Most people like this inadvertently make someone feel stupid just because they get it, but not on purpose.

But a few seem to use it as an ego trip. They seem to enjoy showing off their knowledge by deriding someone else’s.

These are the people whose rude comments I instantly delete from my website moderation panel.

(Disagree with me? Publish. Respectfully point out that my wording might be misleading and offer an alternative wording to help others understand? Publish. Rude to other commenters or attack me personally? Delete).

And it only takes a few encounters with people like this to make everyone else feel like anything they say will get them attacked.

A Personal Story

When I was in my graduate statistics program, I was the only student who was not a math major.  I had taken enough math classes as an undergrad, but it had been many years and I just didn’t remember a lot of the details.

I excelled in the applied statistics classes. (Turns out I was the only one who had ever analyzed real data).

But the mathematical theory classes were challenging. I was intimidated and was sure the other students were looking down at my abilities. It wasn’t that I felt I was less intelligent, but less prepared.

At some point I realized that I was doomed if I didn’t ask the “stupid” questions that I was sure were obvious to everyone else.

So, I starting asking questions.  A lot.

All the questions.

And once I did, to my surprise, everyone else started asking questions as well.

It turns out everyone was confused. It was a hard class. And they were terrified to look stupid too.

What to Do

Well, if you’re a statistical consultant, please be extremely respectful.  Realize that many of your clients feel intimidated. Help them not be.  Make talking with you safe.

If you’re a researcher (or even a statistician who gets stuck sometimes), find a place that is safe to ask questions.  Find a consultant who considers their primary job is to help you understand the results.

This is a major, major priority for me, so now that you’ve found us, stick around. (I really don’t tolerate anyone putting anyone else down).

Then keep asking until you understand.

Really.

We want you to ask basic questions

New members of our Statistically Speaking program sometimes tell me they feel intimidated to ask questions.

I encourage them to please, please ask what they feel are basic questions. For a few reasons.

1. It’s totally safe.

No one is going to be rude (I’d shut that situation down if they were).

One of our core values here is constant learning. That’s why we care way more about your learning than just about anything else. We don’t think you need to know every detail of statistics backward and forward to be a great researcher. The whole point of the program (and why we’re here at all) is so  you can get better at statistics without worrying about having to get a second degree. We’re here to help you.

That’s why we hold so many live Q&A sessions in both our membership and workshops and give you a place to submit written questions totally anonymously.

2. What seems basic often isn’t.

Some statistical issues look very basic, but are actually quite complicated, once you dig down into the details.

Context matters so much in data analysis.

3. Even if it is basic, everyone benefits from a review.

None of us remember things we’re not using all the time.

I can’t tell you the number of comments members give me on how useful it is to review the basics.

You’re a researcher. You don’t do statistics every day. Of course you need to review.

That’s why the membership offers trainings on everything from Stage 1 fundamentals to Stage 4 advanced topics. There will always be fundamentals that didn’t make sense the first time or that you’ve just forgotten.

4. Our community likes helping each other.

Our members are very willing to join in with different ways of explaining things or to recommend a book or web site they found very helpful.

You might be surprised at the great conversations we get into in our Q&A sessions when someone asks a question about the fundamentals. We get suggestions and more often than not, follow-up questions.

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