Update on the "Statistics for humanities" website and the failings of the Internet


For the past few months I have been working on a British Academy funded online book to introduce humanities students to statistics. The website is under development and is not public at present. If any readers are interested in providing feedback, please get in touch (j.canning[at]soton.ac.uk) and I can give you an access password in the next few weeks.

Why is this website/ book/ resource is needed?

There are thousands of introductory statistics texts on the market, and I’ve only looked at a small number of them.  In my view a majority of them go too far too fast. For some disciplines this may be appropriate, but introducing the normal distribution in Chapter 1 is frightening to students who have not studied mathematics since the age of 16, and many humanities students are in this situation.  Just to give an example I have the Second edition of Statistics in Geography by David Ebdon on my desk.*  I bought it when I was a geography undergraduate in the mid-1990s, by which time the text was almost 20 years old. I actually think it’s a good book on many levels and I frequently refer to it, but the first chapter introduces data types, probability theory, the normal distribution, hypothesis and significance. As a geographer without an A-level in Maths I found all this a bit much. In the sense of getting good marks I did well in statistics at as an undergraduate, but I can’t claim I really understood what I was doing. For non-mathematicians, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, statistics is very much a ‘hurdle’ to be overcome. Surface learning is the order of the day. With this book I take slower approach whilst hoping to make statistics seem interesting and relevant, but using humanities type examples.

The Internet

We have become so used to the idea that “everything” is available on the World Wide Web that we take it for granted that anything we want to know is out there online somewhere.  Searching for anything to do with statistics leads to seemingly random pages put up to support undergraduate-level statistics courses. Some of these are very useful of course, but on the whole these relate back to a face-to-face course of which we have no knowledge. Some of these websites are among the oldest pages on the World Wide Web. In many cases this is not a problem, but there is no shortage of webpages with references to pre-‘Windows’ versions of Minitab . Wikipedia is useful for many things but statistics really isn’t one of them, as discussion of the statistical tests is highly theory bound.  On the plus side there are any good videos elsewhere. As I’ve mentioned before Daniel Judge’s youtube videos are particularly excellent.

Two annoyances (or surprises)

  1. Surprisingly, although the World Wide Web has been with us for nearly 20 years, displaying mathematical notation online is still a problematic area. I have managed to resolve it to my satisfaction and made this the subject of my last post.
  2. A second surprise (annoyance) lies in in my attempt to find critical values tables in a useful online format. Every statistics book contains them  and they are available online in various formats—I’ve seen some in tables on webpages, scans of tables from books, pdf etc. etc. I have yet to find the tables I need in one place.  It strikes me as surprising that Neave’s Statistics Tables: For Mathematicians, Engineers, Economists and the Behavioural and Management Sciences is not available as a website. Copyright warnings are printed on the amazon preview, but I’m not sure the tables themselves are under copyright. Copyright and critical values tables are not something I expected to have to think about. If anyone could point me in the right direction about this I would be very grateful.

*This 1985 second edition is still in print. Not sure what today's undergraduates would make of the 17 computer programs written in BASIC.

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