“Learn Bayes’ theorem, it won’t kill you.”

Great advice from a somewhat surprising source: K. Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton.

He’s right. Is there a reason, other than tradition, that we teach high school students trigonometry and not basic statistics? (I can think of one other reason, which unfortunately sounds like a pretty good one — swapping out an entire year of curriculum for new material would presumably create a massive problem of teacher training.) How pleasant it would be to answer “When are we ever going to use this?” with “You should be using it right now!”

More from Appiah, writing in Slate in 2005:

Many of them [humanities students] don’t know how to evaluate mathematical models or statistical arguments. And I think that makes you incompetent to participate in many discussions of public policy. So I favor making sure that someone teaches a bunch of really exciting courses, aimed at non-majors in the natural and social sciences, which display how mathematical modeling and statistical techniques can be used and abused in science and in discussions of public policy. If there are enough of them and they’re good enough, one or two required courses in this area won’t seem like a chore to students. And even those who grouse will probably be grateful later.

A lot is hiding in the “If” up there: it’s not easy to design or promote such courses. But we have models. For instance, if you don’t know statistics and want to, or if you do know statistics and want to know how to convince others that they’d better learn, you still can’t beat the 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics.

3 thoughts on ““Learn Bayes’ theorem, it won’t kill you.”

  1. JmSR says:

    I think there’s a lot of pressure on the calculus track just because calculus is so useful in the hard sciences. (Trig falls in with this crowd.)

    Personally, I would like to see more stats, discrete topics, abstract algebra and logic taught in high school. I remember maybe a week on combinatorics.

    Also: when was the last time you heard of an elective non-calc track non-computer math course in high school? There’s gotta be something wrong there.

  2. Em says:

    Nothing would have made me happier than to encounter statistics before graduate school. I actually use what I learned to slog through regular life.

  3. […] WordPress’ “teaching” category, I came across Learn Bayes Theory: It won’t kill you.  I’m aware how much my own universe of comprehension is expanding […]

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