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Statistics and the Translation Problem January 31, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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Folks who are trained in statistical analysis methods can become frustrated when working with untrained folks, and the feeling is often mutual. Business leaders are looking for clear guidance, and all the talk about probabilities, confidence intervals and “the results fail to reject the null hypothesis” doesn’t sound very helpful. I believe that in most cases the problem isn’t with the answer given by the statistical analysis, it’s with the question.

This reminds me of the “word problem” problem that causes a lot of people to give up on math in school. They can solve x+2=3, but they can’t figure out when train A will pass train B when their speeds and locations are given. It’s actually a translation problem, an inability to express the proper mathematical representation of the question that’s posed. If you can express the question correctly the rules of algebra will get you the right answer, but it’s hard to get there.

In inferential statistics there are usually two translations required: from the real-world question to a statistical question, and then from the statistical answer to a real-world answer (or interpretation of the results). If people aren’t happy with the results of the analysis, it’s could be because they (1) asked the wrong statistical question, or (2) didn’t understand the statistical answer.

A little education can go a long way here. At minimum, those who pose the questions and interpret the answers need to understand the concepts of populations, samples, and using sample data to infer the properties of the population. And, those with the statistical training need to develop a good understanding of the business to translate the initial real-world question into an appropriate analysis.

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