Statistics Talk: Chances Are You’re Doing It Wrong

Another enthralled audience
Another enthralled audience
The problem with statistics is the astonishing amount of magical thinking tolerated. A statistician—or his apprentice; this means you—waving a formula over a dataset is little different than an alchemist trying his luck with a philosopher’s stone and a pile of lead. That gold sometimes emerges says more about your efforts than it does about the mystical incantations wielded.

Statistics, which is to say probability, is supposed to be about uncertainty. You would think, then, that the goal of the procedures developed would be to quantify uncertainty to the best extent possible in the matters of interest to most people. You would be wrong. Instead, statistics answers questions nobody asked. Why? Because of mathematical slickness and convenience, mostly.

The result is a plague, an epidemic, a riot of over-certainty. This means you, too. Even if you’re using the newest of the new algorithms, even if you have “big” data, even if you call your statisticians “data scientists”, and even if you are pure of heart and really, really care.

What are some (not all) of the indicators that you’re doing it wrong?

  • You were seduced by a wee p-value: “Ooh, this one is 0.001!”
  • You performed a hypothesis test: “I like to say ‘null hypothesis.'”
  • You examined a posterior: Not that kind.
  • You have used the word “learning” in the context of algorithms: Lift yourself up by the bootstraps.
  • You thought “randomizing” was a good thing; Adding noise makes you surer?
  • You thought your situation in predictive sense; No, wait. This is a good thing.

So where’s the talk? Right where you want it to be. For a small fee, of course. Well, maybe not so small: but worth every smallest-unit-of-currency-you-can-imagine. Teaser: I do not use PowerPoint. See these articles for a preview of the sort of fun you can expect (of course I’m opinionated: that is the point).

W.M. Briggs is a Data Philosopher, or Scientist, if you like; or if you don’t like he is also that well known
Statistician to the Stars! and adjunct Professor of the same subject at Cornell. His specialty is the philosophy of probability and statistics, a field of study even less remunerative than you’d guess. Use the Contact Page to inquire about availability.

Note: organizations who do not wish me to wear a suit and tie must pay a 20% surcharge.


  1. MattS

    Have you considered the possibility that you are over certain of other people’s over certainty? 😉

  2. Briggs


    Yes. But I’m still certain many are over-certain.

  3. Kip Hansen

    Is there no outfit that would pay you to teach a credited online statistics course, with online hand-holding (mentoring or tutoring or whatever they wish to call it these days?) So many galactic fotons per student or something?

  4. Kip Hansen

    Heck, I’d sign up myself — paying out of pocket, naturally…a private student, if you’d prefer.

  5. DAV

    You have used the word “learning” in the context of algorithms
    You thought “randomizing” was a good thing; Adding noise makes you surer?

    When training a neural network it helps prevent focusing on minutia. So, in a sense, adding noise can improve things.

    Oh, wait! That’s using “learning” in the context of an algorithm. What would be a better word?

  6. DAV

    Speaking of noise, when you say the answer lies between Y1 and Y2 with some probability distribution, you have just added noise to your answer.

  7. Francsois


    Everyone in medicine is doing it wrong, not just some, if your “indicators” are true. I would love to attend your talks so you could point to the right way, but I live on the other side of the planet. It would be groovy if you could produce talks online; I know I would pay to watch.



  8. ” Your job is find Briggs work so he can afford to continue bringing you the site.”
    I don’t think that’s my job, that’s your job. In essence wordpress blogging is free. Blogging does not cost me anything except free time. Apparently you have plenty of free time as you write more about religion and ethics than about statistics. Please write more about statistics, then perhaps you get a job as statistician.

  9. For Briggs

    Hans, Briggs says he awaits eagerly your comments on his last two posts, entirely about statistics.

  10. I agree with his views on statistics, I have nothing substantial to contribute to his statistical topics. I disagree with his views on ethics and religion.

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