Clive Thompson nails it when he describes the importance of statistical thinking (italics original; boldtype mine):
Statistics is hard. But that’s not just an issue of individual understanding; it’s also becoming one of the nation’s biggest political problems. We live in a world where the thorniest policy issues increasingly boil down to arguments over what the data mean. If you don’t understand statistics, you don’t know what’s going on — and you can’t tell when you’re being lied to. Statistics should now be a core part of general education. You shouldn’t finish high school without understanding it reasonably well — as well, say, as you can compose an essay.
Consider the economy: Is it improving or not? That’s a statistical question. You can’t actually measure the entire economy, so analysts sample chunks of it — they take a slice here and a slice there and try to piece together a representative story. One metric that’s frequently touted is same-store sales growth, a comparison of how much each store in a big retail chain is selling compared with a year ago. It’s been trending upward, which has financial pundits excited.
Problem is, to calculate that stat, economists remove stores that have closed from their sample. As New York University statistician Kaiser Fung points out, that makes the chains look healthier than they might really be. Does this methodological issue matter? Absolutely: When politicians see economic numbers pointing upward, they’re less inclined to fund stimulus programs.
One of the reasons statistical thinking isn’t widely used, even by many scientists, is that statistics are seen as a proscribed set of tools, rather than as an approach to understanding data. But, in my experience, the hard part isn’t running the tests, but figuring out which tests are appropriate, and even what the precise question is. I’m usually wary of calls for teaching ‘critical thinking’, but training people how to approach data from a statistical perspective–and also how to recognize the limitations of the data and analyses–is vital in a (putatively) data-driven society.
Anyway, as the kids say, read the whole thing.