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A graph of a normal bell curve showing statistics used in standardized testing assessment. The scales include standard deviations, cumulative percentages, percentile equivalents, Z-scores, T-scores, standard nines, and percentages in standard nines.

Statistics is a mathematical science pertaining to the collection, analysis, interpretation or explanation, and presentation of data. It is applicable to a wide variety of academic disciplines, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities, and to government and business.

Statistical methods can be used to summarize or describe a collection of data; this is called descriptive statistics. In addition, patterns in the data may be modeled in a way that accounts for randomness and uncertainty in the observations, and then used to draw inferences about the process or population being studied; this is called inferential statistics. Both descriptive and inferential statistics comprise applied statistics. There is also a discipline called mathematical statistics, which is concerned with the theoretical basis of the subject.

The word statistics is also the plural of statistic (singular), which refers to the result of applying a statistical algorithm to a set of data, as in economic statistics, crime statistics, etc.


Statistics arose, no later than the 18th century, from the need of states to collect data on their people and economies, in order to administer them. Its meaning broadened in the early 19th century to include the collection and analysis of data in general. Today statistics is widely employed in government, business, and the natural and social sciences.

Because of its origins in government and its data-centric world view, statistics is considered to be not a subfield of mathematics but rather a distinct field that uses mathematics. Its mathematical foundations were laid in the 17th and 18th centuries with the development of probability theory. The method of least squares, a central technique of the discipline, was invented in the early 19th century by several authors. Since then new techniques of probability and statistics have been in continual development. Modern computers have expedited large-scale statistical computation, and have also made possible new methods that would be impractical to perform manually.


In applying statistics to a scientific, industrial, or societal problem, one begins with a process or population to be studied. This might be a population of people in a country, of crystal grains in a rock, or of goods manufactured by a particular factory during a given period. It may instead be a process observed at various times; data collected about this kind of "population" constitute what is called a time series.

For practical reasons, rather than compiling data about an entire population, one usually studies a chosen subset of the population, called a sample. Data are collected about the sample in an observational or experimental setting. The data are then subjected to statistical analysis, which serves two related purposes: description and inference.

  • Descriptive statistics can be used to summarize the data, either numerically or graphically, to describe the sample. Basic examples of numerical descriptors include the mean and standard deviation. Graphical summarizations include various kinds of charts and graphs.
  • Inferential statistics is used to model patterns in the data, accounting for randomness and drawing inferences about the larger population. These inferences may take the form of answers to yes/no questions ( hypothesis testing), estimates of numerical characteristics ( estimation), descriptions of association (correlation), or modeling of relationships (regression). Other modeling techniques include ANOVA, time series, and 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, "The Philosophy of Statistics", The Statistician (2000).

The concept of correlation is particularly noteworthy. Statistical analysis of a data set may reveal that two variables (that is, two properties of the population under consideration) tend to vary together, as if they are connected. For example, a study of annual income and age of death among people might find that poor people tend to have shorter lives than affluent people. The two variables are said to be correlated. However, one cannot immediately infer the existence of a causal relationship between the two variables (see Correlation does not imply causation). The correlated phenomena could be caused by a third, previously unconsidered phenomenon, called a lurking variable.

If the sample is representative of the population, then inferences and conclusions made from the sample can be extended to the population as a whole. A major problem lies in determining the extent to which the chosen sample is representative. Statistics offers methods to estimate and correct for randomness in the sample and in the data collection procedure, as well as methods for designing robust experiments in the first place (see experimental design).

The fundamental mathematical concept employed in understanding such randomness is probability. Mathematical statistics (also called statistical theory) is the branch of applied mathematics that uses probability theory and analysis to examine the theoretical basis of statistics.

The use of any statistical method is valid only when the system or population under consideration satisfies the basic mathematical assumptions of the method. Misuse of statistics can produce subtle but serious errors in description and interpretation — subtle in that even experienced professionals sometimes make such errors, and serious in that they may affect social policy, medical practice and the reliability of structures such as bridges and nuclear power plants. Even when statistics is correctly applied, the results can be difficult to interpret for a non-expert. For example, the statistical significance of a trend in the data — which measures the extent to which the trend could be caused by random variation in the sample — may not agree with one's intuitive sense of its significance. The set of basic statistical skills (and skepticism) needed by people to deal with information in their everyday lives is referred to as statistical literacy.

Statistical methods

Experimental and observational studies

A common goal for a statistical research project is to investigate causality, and in particular to draw a conclusion on the effect of changes in the values of predictors or independent variables on response or dependent variables. There are two major types of causal statistical studies, experimental studies and observational studies. In both types of studies, the effect of differences of an independent variable (or variables) on the behaviour of the dependent variable are observed. The difference between the two types is in how the study is actually conducted. Each can be very effective.

An experimental study involves taking measurements of the system under study, manipulating the system, and then taking additional measurements using the same procedure to determine if the manipulation may have modified the values of the measurements. In contrast, an observational study does not involve experimental manipulation. Instead data are gathered and correlations between predictors and the response are investigated.

An example of an experimental study is the famous Hawthorne studies which attempted to test changes to the working environment at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company. The researchers were interested in whether increased illumination would increase the productivity of the assembly line workers. The researchers first measured productivity in the plant then modified the illumination in an area of the plant to see if changes in illumination would affect productivity. As it turns out, productivity improved under all the experimental conditions (see Hawthorne effect). However, the study is today heavily criticized for errors in experimental procedures, specifically the lack of a control group and blindedness.

An example of an observational study is a study which explores the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. This type of study typically uses a survey to collect observations about the area of interest and then perform statistical analysis. In this case, the researchers would collect observations of both smokers and non-smokers, perhaps through a case-control study, and then look at the number of cases of lung cancer in each group.

The basic steps for an experiment are to:

  1. plan the research including determining information sources, research subject selection, and ethical considerations for the proposed research and method,
  2. design the experiment concentrating on the system model and the interaction of independent and dependent variables,
  3. summarize a collection of observations to feature their commonality by suppressing details ( descriptive statistics),
  4. reach consensus about what the observations tell us about the world we observe ( statistical inference),
  5. document and present the results of the study.

Levels of measurement

See: Stanley Stevens' "Scales of measurement" (1946): nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio

There are four types of measurements or measurement scales used in statistics. The four types or levels of measurement (nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio) have different degrees of usefulness in statistical research. Ratio measurements, where both a zero value and distances between different measurements are defined, provide the greatest flexibility in statistical methods that can be used for analyzing the data. Interval measurements have meaningful distances between measurements but no meaningful zero value (such as IQ measurements or temperature measurements in Fahrenheit). Ordinal measurements have imprecise differences between consecutive values but a meaningful order to those values. Nominal measurements have no meaningful rank order among values.

Variables conforming only to nominal or ordinal measurements are together sometimes called categorical variables, since they cannot reasonably be numerically measured, whereas ratio and interval measurements are grouped together as quantitative or continuous variables due to their numerical nature.

Statistical techniques

Some well known statistical tests and procedures for research observations are:

  • Student's t-test
  • chi-square test
  • Analysis of variance (ANOVA)
  • Mann-Whitney U
  • Regression analysis
  • Factor Analysis
  • Correlation
  • Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient
  • Spearman's rank correlation coefficient
  • Time Series Analysis

Specialized disciplines

Some fields of inquiry use applied statistics so extensively that they have specialized terminology. These disciplines include:

  • Actuarial science
  • Applied information economics
  • Biostatistics
  • Bootstrap & Jackknife Resampling
  • Business statistics
  • Data mining (applying statistics and pattern recognition to discover knowledge from data)
  • Demography
  • Economic statistics (Econometrics)
  • Energy statistics
  • Engineering statistics
  • Environmental Statistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Geography and Geographic Information Systems, more specifically in Spatial analysis
  • Image processing
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Psychological statistics
  • Quality
  • Social statistics
  • Statistical literacy
  • Statistical modeling
  • Statistical surveys
  • Process analysis and chemometrics (for analysis of data from analytical chemistry and chemical engineering)
  • Survival analysis
  • Reliability engineering
  • Statistics in various sports, particularly baseball and cricket

Statistics form a key basis tool in business and manufacturing as well. It is used to understand measurement systems variability, control processes (as in statistical process control or SPC), for summarizing data, and to make data-driven decisions. In these roles it is a key tool, and perhaps the only reliable tool.

Statistical computing

The rapid and sustained increases in computing power starting from the second half of the 20th century have had a substantial impact on the practice of statistical science. Early statistical models were almost always from the class of linear models, but powerful computers, coupled with suitable numerical algorithms, caused a resurgence of interest in nonlinear models (especially neural networks and decision trees) and the creation of new types, such as generalised linear models and multilevel models.

Increased computing power has also led to the growing popularity of computationally-intensive methods based on resampling, such as permutation tests and the bootstrap, while techniques such as Gibbs sampling have made Bayesian methods more feasible. The computer revolution has implications for the future of statistics, with a new emphasis on "experimental" and "empirical" statistics. A large number of both general and special purpose statistical packages are now available to practitioners.


There is a general perception that statistical knowledge is all-too-frequently intentionally misused, by finding ways to interpret the data that are favorable to the presenter. A famous saying attributed to Benjamin Disraeli is, " There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." And Harvard President Lawrence Lowell wrote in 1909 that statistics, "like veal pies, are good if you know the person that made them, and are sure of the ingredients."

If various studies appear to contradict one another, then the public may come to distrust such studies. For example, one study may suggest that a given diet or activity raises blood pressure, while another may suggest that it lowers blood pressure. The discrepancy can arise from subtle variations in experimental design, such as differences in the patient groups or research protocols, that are not easily understood by the non-expert. (Media reports sometimes omit this vital contextual information entirely.)

By choosing (or rejecting, or modifying) a certain sample, results can be manipulated; throwing out outliers is one means of doing so. Such manipulations need not be malicious or devious; they can arise from unintentional biases of the researcher. The graphs used to summarize data can also be misleading.

Deeper criticisms come from the fact that the hypothesis testing approach, widely used and in many cases required by law or regulation, forces one hypothesis (the null hypothesis) to be "favored", and can also seem to exaggerate the importance of minor differences in large studies. A difference that is highly statistically significant can still be of no practical significance. (See criticism of hypothesis testing and controversy over the null hypothesis.)

One response has been a greater emphasis on the p-value over simply reporting whether a hypothesis was rejected at the given level of significance. The p-value, however, does not indicate the size of the effect. Another increasingly common approach is to report confidence intervals. Although these are produced from the same calculations as hypothesis tests or p-values, they describe both the size of the effect and the uncertainty surrounding it.

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