Meaning from Data: Statistics Made Clear

Learn how to understand statistical information and the role it plays in everything from political polls to stock performances in this course taught by a professor of Mathematics.


Statistical information is truly everywhere. You can't look at a newspaper without seeing statistics on virtually every page. Meaning from Data: Statistics Made Clear is your introduction to a vitally important subject in today's data-driven society. In 24 half-hour lectures, which require no background in mathematics beyond basic algebra, you explore the principles and methods that underlie the study of statistics. Professor Michael Starbird puts his emphasis on the role of statistics in daily life: weather forecasts, business, and a host of other applications.


Michael Starbird
Michael Starbird

The geometrical insights that I most like are those where different ideas come together unexpectedly to reveal some sort of a relationship that was not obvious at first


The University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Michael Starbird is Professor of Mathematics and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, where he has been teaching since 1974. He received his B.A. from Pomona College in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1974. Professor Starbird's textbook, The Heart of Mathematics: An Invitation to Effective Thinking, coauthored with Edward B. Burger, won a 2001 Robert W. Hamilton Book Award. Professors Starbird and Burger also collaborated on Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz: Making Light of Weighty Ideas, published in 2005. Professor Starbird has won many teaching awards, including the Mathematical Association of America's 2007 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo National Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics, which is the association's most prestigious teaching award. It is awarded nationally to 3 people from its membership of 27,000. Professor Starbird is interested in bringing authentic understanding of significant ideas in mathematics to people who are not necessarily mathematically oriented. He has developed and taught an acclaimed class that presents higher-level mathematics to liberal arts students.

By This Professor

Meaning from Data: Statistics Made Clear


Describing Data and Inferring Meaning

01: Describing Data and Inferring Meaning

The statistical study of data deals with two fundamental questions: How can we describe and understand a situation when we have all the pertinent data about it? How can we infer features of all the data when we know only some of the data?

33 min
Data and Distributions-Getting the Picture

02: Data and Distributions-Getting the Picture

The first three rules of statistics should be: Draw a picture, draw a picture, draw a picture. A visual representation of data reveals patterns and relationships, for example, the distribution of one variable, or an association between two variables.

32 min
Inference-How Close? How Confident?

03: Inference-How Close? How Confident?

The logic of statistical inference is to compare data that we collect to expectations about what the data would be if the world were random in some particular respect. Randomness and probability are the cornerstones of all methods for testing hypotheses.

33 min
Describing Dispersion or Measuring Spread

04: Describing Dispersion or Measuring Spread

This lecture defines and explores standard deviation, which measures how widely data are spread from the mean. The various methods of measuring data dispersion have different properties that determine the best method to use.

30 min
Models of Distributions-Shapely Families

05: Models of Distributions-Shapely Families

Any shaped curve can model a data set. This lecture looks at skewed and bimodal shapes, and describes other characteristically shaped classes of distributions, including exponential and Poisson. Each shape arises naturally in specific settings.

32 min
The Bell Curve

06: The Bell Curve

The most famous shape of distributions is the bell-shaped curve, also called a normal curve or a Gaussian distribution. This lecture explores its properties and why it arises so frequently-as in the central limit theorem, one of the core insights on which statistical inference is based.

32 min
Correlation and Regression-Moving Together

07: Correlation and Regression-Moving Together

One way we attempt to understand the world is to identify cases of cause and effect. In statistics, the challenge is to describe and measure the relationship between two variables, for example, incoming SAT scores and college grade point averages.

33 min
Probability-Workhorse for Inference

08: Probability-Workhorse for Inference

Probability accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of putting a useful, numerical value on the likelihood of random events. Our intuition about what to expect from randomness is often far from accurate. This lecture looks at several examples that place intuition and reality far apart.

32 min
Samples-The Few, The Chosen

09: Samples-The Few, The Chosen

Sampling is a technique for inferring features of a whole population from information about some of its members. A familiar example is a political poll. Interesting issues and problems arise in taking and using samples. Examples of potential pitfalls are explored.

30 min
Hypothesis Testing-Innocent Until

10: Hypothesis Testing-Innocent Until

This lecture introduces a fundamental strategy of statistical inference called hypothesis testing. The method involves assessing whether observed data are consistent with a claim about the population in order to determine whether the claim might be false. Drug testing is a common application.

31 min
Confidence Intervals-How Close? How Sure?

11: Confidence Intervals-How Close? How Sure?

Headlines at election time frequently trumpet statistics such as: "Candidate A will receive 59 percent of the vote, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent." This lecture investigates what this "margin of error" statement means and why it is incomplete as written.

34 min
Design of Experiments-Thinking Ahead

12: Design of Experiments-Thinking Ahead

When gathering data from which deductions can be drawn confidently, it's important to think ahead. Double-blind experiments and other strategies can help meet the goal of good experimental design.

31 min
Law-You're the Jury

13: Law-You're the Jury

Opening the second part of the course, which deals with applying statistics, this lecture focuses on two examples of courtroom drama: a hit-and-run accident and a gender-discrimination case. In both, the analysis of statistics aids in reaching a fair verdict.

29 min
Democracy and Arrow's Impossibility Theorem

14: Democracy and Arrow's Impossibility Theorem

An election assembles individual opinions into one societal decision. This lecture considers a surprising reality about elections: The outcome may have less to do with voters' preferences than with the voting method used, especially when three or more candidates are involved.

29 min
Election Problems and Engine Failure

15: Election Problems and Engine Failure

The challenge of choosing an election winner can be thought of as taking voters' rank orderings of candidates and returning a societal rank ordering. A mathematically similar situation occurs when trying to determine what type of engine lasts longest among competing versions.

29 min
Sports-Who's Best of All Time?

16: Sports-Who's Best of All Time?

Analyzing statistical data in sports is a sport of its own. This lecture asks, "Who is the best hitter in baseball history?" The question presents statistical challenges in comparing performances in different eras. Another mystery is also probed: "Is the 'hot hand' phenomenon real, or is it random?"

31 min
Risk-War and Insurance

17: Risk-War and Insurance

A discussion of strategies for estimating the number of Mark V tanks produced by the Germans in World War II brings up the idea of expected value, a central concept in the risky business of buying and selling insurance.

30 min
Real Estate-Accounting for Value

18: Real Estate-Accounting for Value

Tax authorities often need to set valuations for every house in a tax district. The challenge is to use the data about recently sold houses to assess the values of all the houses. This classic example of statistical inference introduces the idea of multiple linear regression.

29 min
Misleading, Distorting, and Lying

19: Misleading, Distorting, and Lying

Statistics can be used to deceive as well as enlighten. This lecture explores deceptive practices such as concealing lurking variables, using biased samples, focusing on rare events, reporting handpicked data, extrapolating trends unrealistically, and confusing correlation with causation.

30 min
Social Science-Parsing Personalities

20: Social Science-Parsing Personalities

This lecture addresses two topics that come up when applying statistics to social sciences: factor analysis, which seeks to identify underlying factors that explain correlation among a larger group of measured quantities, and possible limitations of hypothesis testing.

31 min
Quack Medicine, Good Hospitals, and Dieting

21: Quack Medicine, Good Hospitals, and Dieting

Medical treatments are commonly based on statistical studies. Aspects to consider in contemplating treatment include the characteristics of the study group and the difference between correlation and causation. Another statistical concept, regression to the mean, explains why quack medicines can appear to work.

31 min

22: Economics-"One" Way to Find Fraud

Economics relies on a wealth of statistical data, including income levels, the balance of trade, the deficit, the stock market, and the consumer price index. A surprising result of such data is that the leading digits of numbers do not occur with equal frequency, and that provides a statistical method for detecting fraud.

31 min
Science-Mendel's Too-Good Peas

23: Science-Mendel's Too-Good Peas

Statistics is essential in sciences from weather forecasting to quantum physics. This lecture discusses the statistics-based research of Johannes Kepler, Edwin Hubble, and Gregor Mendel. In Mendel's case, statisticians have looked at his studies of the genetics of pea plants and discovered data that are too good to be true.

31 min
Statistics Everywhere

24: Statistics Everywhere

The importance of statistics will only increase as greater computer speed and capacity make dealing with ever-larger data sets possible. It has limits that need to be respected, but its potential for helping us find meaning in our data-driven world is enormous and growing.

31 min