Cornell Teaching Sojourn: Probability, Stats, & R

Time for the annual migration to Ithaca via a well accoutered golden coach (complete with undergraduates feeding professors grapes grown at Cornell’s orchards). There I will linger for two weeks, ruling as benign and loving dictator over ILRST 5150, i.e. Statistical Research Methods in ILR’s MPS program.

The class works by me holding forth with dulcet but brief pontifications followed by intense questioning of the students, as a cop might grill a suspect. “What did I just say? What in the dark-mattered universe do you think I meant by that? Have you signed up for the wine tour yet?”

The wine tour—completely unofficial and off the books—ends Week One with a journey to several Finger Lakes wineries to sample their wares. To be cruelly honest, many of these are poor. If the wines aren’t sour and vinegary, they are so sweet you could stand a teaspoon up in them. One unbearable vineyard (the name of which is hidden in a riddle) produces nothing but pinkish paint thinner. But everywhere the wines are wet and contain (among other chemicals) ethanol, which is welcome after five full days of statistics statistics statistics and with another week of the same to come.

(But there are dangers, too. At one stop on the wine trail, I was once nearly abducted by a bachelorette party and had to be rescued by one of my students.)

The class contains almost no math and certainly no memorization of formulas. I figure the computer can do those things for you, and that time spent proving things mathematically removes time spent in understanding what probability is and learning the strengths and limitations of statistics. As regular readers know, the latter are many, nefarious, and ubiquitous.

I have only one or two canned examples. The rest have to be provided by the students themselves. This eliminates having to figure out a whole new field and its data and how to describe its uncertainty. Besides, textbook examples are far too neat, even coy. Better to see how messy, compromising, and ambiguous collecting data is. Gives a far better appreciation of the ease of making mistakes and the resultant over-confidence.

I teach R; successfully, too. Yes, it is a programming language, but that is its great advantage. I was able to teach R to a man who did not know what a spreadsheet was and could not type. He did not own a computer. This wasn’t because of my ability, but because learning the rudiments of any logical programming language is something almost anybody can do. (I do not include SAS in this list; it is an appalling language.)

Following my custom, for the next two weeks posts will reflect, broadly or in detail, what is going on in the class. I won’t have time to do anything more. Feel free to ask questions, but understand I might not be able to get to all of them.

Update A good joke.


  1. Gary

    On the tour, do you stop at Bully Hill? Walter S. epitomized iconoclastic attitudes. You sympathize, right?

  2. Gary

    Oh, and specifically what is appalling about SAS — the syntax or the statistics? I would agree that it’s clumsy for data handling — I/O, merging, arrays, etc.

  3. DAV

    Finger Lakes wines are the worst. The Catawba grape tastes awful. They do seem to have a market though.

    R has its awkwardness, too. There’s nothing like the dancing needed to handle NAs.

  4. Steve E

    Our Niagara region wines in Canada used to be equally putrid until they start grafting vinifera varietals onto native root stocks. They used to make horrendous wines like Baby Deer, Baby Bear, Baby Duck, Baby etc. mostly from concord grapes. The results were insipid. I agree with DAV, the catawba grape is awful in wine.

    Now, the niagara region produces some very good Dry Riesling, Vidal, Gewurtztraminer, Baco Noir & Cabernet Franc. Aren’t they doing the same thing in New York? The climate is fairly similar.

  5. onlyme

    Simply because XKCD is sometimes filled with awesome: and as always, READ the MOUSEOVER comment.

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