Preface to Making Fair Comparisons

Making some progress on the Making Fair Comparisons textbook. The preface is below.

One thing I’ve learned from reading cheesy self-help books: If you believe a skill will change a person’s life, you should say it. At the end of the book, the reader will know if their life is changed or not. There’s time to be cynical later. At the beginning of the book, let your passion show.

So anyway, here’s the cheesy intro to the text. I love it.

Why we compare

Which intersection in town is the most dangerous?
How much more expensive will college be if I graduate a year late?
Which product line has given our business the best overall return in the past two years?
How much more campaign money was spent in the election of 2008 compared to previous elections?

Comparisons don’t happen in a vacuum. Usually when someone is comparing things, they are comparing them for a reason. In the case of the intersection question above, maybe there is an action pending – if we are going to upgrade one intersection, which one should it be? Businesses may want to know what products have been the most profitable so they can pursue profitable avenues at the expense of the less profitable ones. A political scientist may be investigating the influence of money on elections, and trying to determine if that influence has increased over time.

Ultimately, comparisons have real world consequences. If you rightly determine which intersection is the most dangerous as an urban planner, perhaps you can save a life. Knowing which product lines have given a company a good return could be the key to keeping a business afloat, saving your job and the jobs of others.  Determining whether money in elections is out of control or in line with historical trends can help us plot a course of action for our country that fixes what is wrong with our system while preserving what is right.

Depending on what profession you go into, you may use algebra or you may not. Some of you may use calculus or trigonometry. Some of you will be asked to use advanced statistical methods. Most won’t.

But every single one of you will be asked to compare things as an employee, consumer, and citizen. And whether you are able to compare things adequately will have dramatic effects on the success of your business, your family, and your community.

This is a book about how to use very simple statistical techniques to compare things. It is not so much about formulas as it is about critically thinking about numbers. We honestly believe this skill will be one of the most important skills you acquire in your college career.  Mastering it will change your life for the better, and get you closer to being the sort of person you want to be.

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