In applying statistics to a scientific, industrial, or societal problem, it is necessary to begin with a population or process to be studied. Populations can be diverse topics such as "all persons living in a country" or "every atom composing a crystal". A population can also be composed of observations of a process at various times, with the data from each observation serving as a different member of the overall group. Data collected about this kind of "population" constitutes what is called a time series.
For practical reasons, a chosen subset of the population called a sample is studied — as opposed to compiling data about the entire group (an operation called census). Once a sample that is representative of the population is determined, data is collected for the sample members in an observational or experimental setting. This data can then be subjected to statistical analysis, serving two related purposes: description and inference.
- Descriptive statistics summarize the population data by describing what was observed in the sample numerically or graphically. Numerical descriptors include mean and standard deviation for continuous data types (like heights or weights), while frequency and percentage are more useful in terms of describing categorical data (like race).
- Inferential statistics uses patterns in the sample data to draw inferences about the population represented, accounting for randomness. These inferences may take the form of: answering yes/no questions about the data (hypothesis testing), estimating numerical characteristics of the data (estimation), describing associations within the data (correlation) and modeling relationships within the data (for example, using regression analysis). Inference can extend to forecasting, prediction and estimation of unobserved values either in or associated with the population being studied; it can include extrapolation and interpolation of time series or spatial data, and can also include data mining.
"... it is only the manipulation of uncertainty that interests us. We are not concerned with the matter that is uncertain. Thus we do not study the mechanism of rain; only whether it will rain."Dennis Lindley, 2000
The concept of correlation is particularly noteworthy for the potential confusion it can cause. Statistical analysis of a data set often reveals that two variables (properties) of the population under consideration tend to vary together, as if they were connected. For example, a study of annual income that also looks at age of death might find that poor people tend to have shorter lives than affluent people. The two variables are said to be correlated; however, they may or may not be the cause of one another. The correlation phenomena could be caused by a third, previously unconsidered phenomenon, called a lurking variable or confounding variable. For this reason, there is no way to immediately infer the existence of a causal relationship between the two variables. (See Correlation does not imply causation.)
For a sample to be used as a guide to an entire population, it is important that it is truly a representative of that overall population. Representative sampling assures that the inferences and conclusions can be safely extended from the sample to the population as a whole. A major problem lies in determining the extent to which the sample chosen is actually representative. Statistics offers methods to estimate and correct for any random trending within the sample and data collection procedures. There are also methods of experimental design for experiments that can lessen these issues at the outset of a study, strengthening its capability to discern truths about the population.
Randomness is studied using the mathematical discipline of probability theory. Probability is used in "mathematical statistics" (alternatively, "statistical theory") to study the sampling distributions of sample statistics and, more generally, the properties of statistical procedures. The use of any statistical method is valid when the system or population under consideration satisfies the assumptions of the method.
Misuse of statistics can produce subtle, but serious errors in description and interpretation — subtle in the sense that even experienced professionals make such errors, and serious in the sense that they can lead to devastating decision errors. For instance, social policy, medical practice, and the reliability of structures like bridges all rely on the proper use of statistics. See below for further discussion.
Even when statistical techniques are correctly applied, the results can be difficult to interpret for those lacking expertise. The statistical significance of a trend in the data — which measures the extent to which a trend could be caused by random variation in the sample — may or may not agree with an intuitive sense of its significance. The set of basic statistical skills (and skepticism) that people need to deal with information in their everyday lives properly is referred to as statistical literacy.
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