Temple professor John Allen Paulos has an article in the New York Times that got Slashdotted today suggesting people be wary of all the metrics that fill our daily lives.

His first contention is whether assumptions about categorization are correct.  This is certainly important, but hopefully qualified statisticians, social scientists, doctors, etc. . .are making these decisions and properly counting the results.

Next he discusses whether numbers you are looking at have been aggregated properly and were arrived at by using the proper choices of criteria, protocols and weights.  He gives articles such as “The 10 Friendliest Colleges” and “The 20 Most Lovable Neighborhoods” as examples.  Having done a lot of work where variable selection and shrinkage is important I can say that I, for one, allow the data to speak for itself and use various statistical methods to arrive at the correct decision.

Dr. Paulos makes more points, but I’ll let you read the article for yourself.  The important take away–at least to me–is that when looking at reported statistics and measurements, try to figure out what methods were used.  That’s why I always am disappointed when articles do not report their methods.  I realize that understanding the techniques might be beyond the average person, but that’s when you ask your statistician friend.

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Jared Lander is the Chief Data Scientist of Lander Analytics a New York data science firm, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, Organizer of the New York Open Statistical Programming meetup and the New York and Washington DC R Conferences and author of R for Everyone.

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