Scary statistics- How I’m working at overcoming my fear of stats

When I was six years old I came home from school and announced to my father that I couldn’t do math because I was a girl. This was a horrible choice of words. Not only is this obviously and horrendously false but my parents are not the kind of people who take kindly to the statement “ I can’t do something” (especially when the reasoning behind it is so blatantly and insultingly incorrect). And so I found myself, every Saturday morning, faced with 20 math questions that had to be completed before I was to do anything else. Torturous? Yes. Effective in teaching me that I can do anything I set my mind to? Yes. Did it make me a math genius? No.

I’ve never been good with numbers. Clearly I did not inherit my scientist parents skills on that front. I got by in school and always got good grades because I’m good at memorizing and learning formulas. I did quite like calculus, trigonometry and algebra, because they were all about making what was in front of you beautiful and coherent. I like things like that. My mental arithmetic skills are sub-par, and while relationships between numbers leap out to some people, it is never something instinctive to me. But most of all, what I do not like, and do not understand, is statistics.

From the moment we first met, statistics and I have had a dysfunctional relationship based on my hatred. I must pause now to say that I fully understand the value and necessity of statistics. They are the backbone of science and it’s terrifying how misunderstood and misused they are in popular news. As they say, “46% of statistics are made up on the spot”. I have learned enough in my years of post secondary education to recognize badly reported statistics. This is a skill that I value and wish more people had when critically listening to so called “news reports”.

But I’m still not a fan of doing them myself.

It’s hard to exactly formulate why I’m not a fan but I will try.

I’m not very good at it.

It’s not intuitive to me and I still for the life of me don’t understand how something can be a rule yet the answer can change depending on how you ask the question. This seems very un-mathematic to me and, try as I might, I can’t help but get caught up in a frustrating circle of asking “Dear lord why is it this way”.

Now I’ve been extremely lucky so far in my academic journey to have supervisors who have overlooked my numerical apprehension and who have guided me through, offering support and understanding along the way. With my undergraduate and masters I was able to get by with fairly basic statistics but the PhD, as always, is a whole other beast.

I was very frank with my supervisors before starting this journey. Too frank some might say (my supervisor continues to tease me about how often I talk about how much I hate statistics) but I believe in being up front, especially when it comes to something that really is an Achilles heel. From the beginning, my supervisors and I worked together to devise a plan that would allow me to get the help I needed when it came to the analyses of my project. We decided quite quickly that one of my biggest problems to date was asking too many questions. I have a hard time accepting that I can’t know everything and I would find myself continuously delving deeper and deeper into the math theory to try and understand why something is the way that it is. While this would be great for some, I do not have a mathematical mind and the end result would consistently leave me feeling deflated and confused. That’s not what you want. So the first step in the reparation of my relationship with statistics has been to Let It Go. Just accept that some things are rules because they are rules. Figuring out the complicated mathematics behind why is perhaps for another day.

The second tool in the journey was a brilliant support team. On my team are my wonderful supervisors who supported my struggle from the start and will (hopefully) continue to do so right up to my defence. Once I had enough data to run some initial pilot analyses my supervisor and I booked in a weekly 30 minute meeting for 2 months. At these meetings we would do some statistics, step by step, side by side, with me taking copious notes. At the end of each one I would be assigned some work to do on my own, to then discuss at our next meeting. Hand holding at it’s finest. It may sound ridiculous to some but it has helped me to no end. 30 mins were enough to fill with challenges but not enough time to be completely overwhelming. I also have wonderful colleagues who are always there to answer any technical problems when I’m attempting to run numbers. I’m using Andy Field’s book on SPSS, which is written in a humorous and lighthearted way-which also helps. There’s something comforting about a bad math joke. Finally, I have a husband who realises very quickly when I’ve had data heavy days and covers me in blankets and brings me tea as I rock myself in a corner. Just kidding. It’s not that bad…

Which brings me to my final step in my journey. I’ve realised it’s not that bad. Sure I’m far from understanding everything, and it took me a few attempts before I broke down and asked my supervisor how to order things numerically in SPSS, but I’m getting there. I’m slowly learning how to get the computer to do the work for me, and how to take it at it’s word and interpret what it’s done.

*I must watch my words here, on the off chance that my supervisor is reading this and misinterprets this as any sort of statistical enthusiasm*.

Guys I’m kind of enjoying the process. Yes it’s frustrating and yes it’s still hard for me but I’ll be damned if it’s not incredibly satisfying. I feel as though I’m slowly but surely giving up a ghost that has haunted my academic life for years. Will I ever love stats? No. Hell no. Seriously no. But will I be able to do it (with some help and patience from those around me). Of course I will.