Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Understanding Statistics
Originator Gordon Clark
Department Department of Geography, Lancaster University, LA1 4YB
Tel. +44 (0)1524 593740
Fax. +44 (0)1524 847099

One major problem for new students is that they learn but do not understand. Nowhere is this more evident than in their use of statistics - in the sense of numerical data. The tendency is for students just to memorise data and interpret them in a superficial way without questioning what the data mean. A related problem is the extent to which an apparently simple concept (such as unemployment, welfare, safety or growth) can be measured fully and unambiguously by a single variable or criterion.

This tutorial presents students with some data and through careful probing seeks to help them to appreciate the complexity of data interpretation and the difficulty of capturing broad concepts in a single variable.

A useful set of data to give the students would be the following: "In 1995, 3621 people were killed, 45,523 seriously injured and 261,000 slightly injured in road traffic accidents in the UK. Are British roads safe?"

Points for discussion would include the following:

- the need for a time series of comparable data to identify trends;
- the need for internationally comparable data;
- a disaggregation of data for different road users (e.g. drivers and pedestrians);
- the need for an accident rate (i.e. fatalities per vehicle kilometre or per journey);
- data for different types of road (e.g. motorways, urban and rural roads);
- comparable data for other modes of transport (e.g. rail).

The conclusion to the discussion could focus on:

- the different interpretations which can be put on a set of data;
- issues of 'acceptable' levels of accidents in different circumstances;
- issues of trends and absolute levels;
- issues of differential risks to various road users;
- the need for a wide range of data before one can come to conclusions such as whether British roads are safe.



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Page created 7 April 1997
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