Statistics Without Context Are Useless

In preparing for the classes that I teach on Tuesday, I was re-reading the assigned chapters in the textbook yesterday. This week, we’re covering cross-cultural management. A few pages into the chapter, I was dismayed to read the following:

“Here are a couple of positive signs: 2008 saw record numbers of foreign students (623,805) studying in the United States and US students (241,791) studying abroad.”

Does anyone know what’s wrong with this? After reading this paragraph, I took to Twitter to respond. Let’s go to the tweets!

 

 

 

 

To summarize: statistics without context are useless.

To better contextualize the numbers offered in the textbook, the author would need to tell offer some numbers on the recent number of foreign students studying in the US and likewise, US students studying abroad. That is, are the numbers trending up? Downward? Was this year an anomaly?

More importantly than earlier years, would be to fully contextualize it by offering percentages. Is the percentage of foreign-born students studying in the US higher than it was last year? What about for US student studying abroad?

Simply offering these absolute values is, in a sense, misleading. It conveys to the reader that foreign study is trending up, when in fact, it could be on the decline. By having more students studying (in general) there is a higher number of students who could study abroad. And that’s why it’s important to have percentages (in this case). In some cases, percentages won’t be helpful. It really all depends on the question you’re trying to answer or the information you’re trying to convey.

Note: for those interested, the quote comes from Organizational Behavior, 9th edition, page 103.

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One response to “Statistics Without Context Are Useless

  1. Pingback: Why Humanistic Psychology is Still Relevant | Jeremiah Stanghini

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