Gammon: Statistically speaking, we don’t use calculus much

Feb. 19, 2013 @ 01:16 PM

Quantitative skills are highly sought after by employers and the best time to learn these skills is in high school and early college. And we all know the best math students should eventually learn calculus.

Or should they? Maybe it’s statistics, not calculus, that is a more worthy pursuit for the vast majority of students.

It’s not that learning calculus is pointless. Calculus applies integrally to physics, engineering, space exploration, satellite positioning, complex building projects and several other lines of work. If your career ambitions fit within one of these domains, by all means, learn calculus.

Most of us, however, are destined for careers other than physics, engineering or mathematics.

Statistics weave deeply throughout the fabric of our society. Remember all those political polls last fall? Every one of them reported a “margin of error” and a “sample size” as part of the results. Without statistical training, it is easy to misinterpret their results – especially when you encounter conflicting poll results.

What about stories on the economic recovery and the fiscal cliff? Reporters throw at us a dizzying array of unemployment data, housing data, government spending data and more. Readers with training in statistics will have an easier time making sense of it all.

Because of the news media and the Internet, we face a daily bombardment of quantitative information. This deluge is growing exponentially with each passing year and each technological innovation, becoming a virtual river into which our vessels are thrust. A citizen without a working knowledge of statistics is rafting that river without a paddle.

Can you remember the last time you saw in the newspaper a story that focused on the area under a curve, or the slope of a line? Yeah, neither can I. If you ever stumble upon such a story, then calculus might be your best friend.

To most students, however, statistics will be of far more use than calculus, especially if they select career paths that require them to analyze risk, evaluate trends, confront randomness, deal with uncertainty or extract patterns from data.

As a child I realized I had a knack for math. All my mentors steered me toward calculus, which I gobbled up as a high school senior. After choosing to major in biology in college, I kept looking for calculus in my courses. Nine years later, after finishing my doctoral studies, I had encountered just one biology course that used calculus.

Not once in my professional career has calculus been particularly relevant.

Statistics, however, has been my bread and butter. Nearly every major project I have attempted required the use of statistics. I wish someone had told me this secret when I was younger.

If you care about numbers, and if those numbers vary, then statistics courses are what you need. They are fundamental to careers in business, economics, biological and health sciences, computer sciences, many social sciences and even designing video games.

So why don’t high schools and universities do more to promote stat courses? Many factors probably play a role. Calculus had a historical headstart, invented more than a century earlier. Meanwhile, high school and college instructors trained to teach calculus are hesitant to take on a new subject. Calculus also requires limited technology, whereas statistics classes usually need sophisticated software and computing power that has become available only recently.

Ultimately, it will take time for our educational systems to adapt to the shifting needs of society. Students will benefit right now, however, if they expose themselves to more statistics. Parents and academic advisors everywhere should take heed and help promote this valuable discipline.

Dave Gammon is an associate professor of biology at Elon University. He can be reached at