Does drinking coffee actually increase your life expectancy? A recent study (Freedman, Park, Abnet, Hollenbeck, & Sinha, 2012) found that men who drank at least six cups of coffee a day had a 10% lower chance of dying (women 15% lower) than those who drank none. Does this mean you should pick up or increase your own coffee habit?
Modern society has become awash in studies such as this; you can read about several such studies in the news every day. Moreover, data abound everywhere in modern life. Conducting such a study well, and interpreting the results of such studies well for making informed decisions or setting policies, requires understanding basic ideas of statistics, the science of gaining insight from data. Rather than relying on anecdote and intuition, statistics allows us to systematically study phenomena of interest.
People around the world differ in their preferences for drinking coffee versus drinking tea. Would the results of the coffee study be the same in Canada as in China?
Key components to a statistical investigation are:
Planning the study: Start by asking a testable research question and deciding how to collect data. For example, how long was the study period of the coffee study? How many people were recruited for the study, how were they recruited, and from where? How old were they? What other variables were recorded about the individuals, such as smoking habits, on the comprehensive lifestyle questionnaires? Were changes made to the participants’ coffee habits during the course of the study?
Examining the data: What are appropriate ways to examine the data? What graphs are relevant, and what do they reveal? What descriptive statistics can be calculated to summarize relevant aspects of the data, and what do they reveal? What patterns do you see in the data? Are there any individual observations that deviate from the overall pattern, and what do they reveal? For example, in the coffee study, did the proportions differ when we compared the smokers to the non-smokers?
Inferring from the data: What are valid statistical methods for drawing inferences “beyond” the data you collected? In the coffee study, is the 10%–15% reduction in risk of death something that could have happened just by chance?
Drawing conclusions: Based on what you learned from your data, what conclusions can you draw? Who do you think these conclusions apply to? (Were the people in the coffee study older? Healthy? Living in cities?) Can you draw a cause-and-effect conclusion about your treatments? (Are scientists now saying that the coffee drinking is the cause of the decreased risk of death?)
Notice that the numerical analysis (“crunching numbers” on the computer) comprises only a small part of overall statistical investigation. In this module, you will see how we can answer some of these questions and what questions you should be asking about any statistical investigation you read about.