Skip to content
Science, Maths & Technology

Statistics: What is it or what are they?

Updated Monday 10th January 2005

How can we hope to understand statistics if we can't even be sure if they're singular or plural? Kevin McConway has an answer

Statistics... What is it? or What Are They?

Most people have some sort of idea, or at least think they have, about what statistics is. But before we get into that, there’s a basic question to answer: is the word ‘statistics’ singular or plural? It looks like a plural because it ends in ‘s’. But ‘mathematics’ and ‘physics’ end in ‘s’, and we don’t talk about one ‘physic’ or one ‘mathematic’.

The words ‘mathematics’ and ‘physics’ are singular and refer to fields of study or knowledge. ‘Statistics’ is also a singular word denoting a field of knowledge.

The statistician Stephen Senn has defined it as ‘the science of quantitative reasoning’ — of ways of thinking about and working with numerical facts and ideas. But ‘statistics’ has a plural meaning as well.

A ‘statistic’ is a numerical fact, or a piece of numerical information or data, and collections of such things are called ‘statistics’ plural.

So statistics (plural) are part of the concern of statistics (singular).

According to Stephen Senn, again, the science of statistics ‘has much more in common with philosophy than it does with accounting.’

A pie chart made from a pie Creative commons image Icon net_efekt via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
A pie chart made from a pie. [Image by net_efekt under Creative Commons attribution licence]

To illustrate further, let’s think about an example: an opinion poll to find out people’s voting intentions in the next General Election.

The pollsters will interview a representative sample of electors, and ask each of them which party they would vote for if there were an election tomorrow.

For instance, in its regular poll in January 2006, the market and opinion research organisation MORI interviewed 1,955 adults across the UK.

Of the 949 of these who said they would be certain to vote if there were an election the next day, 39% said they would vote Conservative, 35% Labour, 19% Liberal Democrat, and the rest for other parties or candidates.

These numbers are statistics in the plural sense; they are facts about what the interviewed people said. The science of statistics (singular) is concerned with many related issues.

How should the pollsters go about choosing a representative sample of people to interview? How should they ask the questions? Given that they did not interview anywhere near all voters in the country, what confidence should we place in the results?

If there really had been an election the next day, the percentage of people voting Tory probably wouldn’t have been exactly 39%, but how close to 39% would it probably have been?

(Statisticians use probability in answering such questions. Numbers have a certain air of solidity and certainty to them, but conclusions drawn from numbers are very rarely certain, and statistics uses the language of probability to talk about this uncertainty.)

Of course, statistics is concerned with many other areas besides opinion polls. Statistics is used wherever there is quantitative information to be dealt with. Medicine and biomedical science, economics, government, education, psychology, finance, environment, and forensic science are just some of the many areas of twenty-first century life in which statistics and statisticians play a key role.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

More or Less: interview with Tim Harford Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

More or Less: interview with Tim Harford

Tim Harford, from More or Less, talks with Kevin McConway on why statistics matter and how they can impact the future.

Audio
20 mins
OpenLearn Live: 6th August 2015 Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Kylie Ramone article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OpenLearn Live: 6th August 2015

Free learning and insight, from the singing gynaecologist. Join us for a collection of learning items as the day rolls on.

Article
OpenLearn Live: 3rd August 2015 Creative commons image Icon Arthur Mouratidis under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OpenLearn Live: 3rd August 2015

Bringing you the best of free learning, research and analysis from across OpenLearn and around the world

Article
OU on the BBC: More or Less - Hate crimes, NHS reform and Manchester serial killer Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Sirfujiyama | Dreamstime.com article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: More or Less - Hate crimes, NHS reform and Manchester serial killer

More or Less puts the spotlight on the statistics around hate crimes, MP's supposed financial interest in the 2012 NHS reform and the Manchester 'canal' serial killer. 

Article
The nQuire young citizen inquiry Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: nQuire article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

The nQuire young citizen inquiry

We want young scientists to develop a personal sense of wonder.

Article
Bang Goes The Theory 5: Episode 5 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Bang Goes The Theory 5: Episode 5

This week the Bang team investigate bed bugs, gravitational lensing, and look at how stastics are presented - using bacon sandwiches

Article
Meet the Bang team: Dallas Campbell Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University audio icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Meet the Bang team: Dallas Campbell

He's done a bit of acting, but that doesn't mean Dallas doesn't know his science.

Audio
5 mins
Darwin Now pod 9: Living legacy Creative commons image Icon celerrimus via Flickr under Creative-Commons license audio icon

Nature & Environment 

Darwin Now pod 9: Living legacy

Find out how Darwin’s scientific legacy is being carried forward in this year of the bicentenary of his birth.

Audio
15 mins
The truth about climate change Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiterimages article icon

Nature & Environment 

The truth about climate change

When it comes to the subject of climate change, do you trust the journalists or the scientists?

Article