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First ‘Stats for Staffers’ Class Brings Statistics to the Hill

1 June 2012 1,463 views No Comment

Mary Foulkes of The George Washington University teaches Stats for Staffers attendees.


Twenty-two congressional staffers from both personal and committee offices listen to Mary Foulkes discuss basic rules of thumb for judging the soundness of data in the Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC.

The ASA offered its first “Stats for Staffers” class on April 27 in conjunction with the Senate Office of Education and Training (OET). The class, titled “How Sound Are the Data?,” was the first in the OET’s Critical Statistical Thinking series. Taught by Mary Foulkes of The George Washington University, the class lasted 90 minutes and was attended by 22 staffers from both personal and committee offices.

The class advertisement showed a picture of President Harry S. Truman with the famous newspaper headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” and promised an interactive discussion of questions to consider regarding the value of the data behind a claim or study and common data sources.

Foulkes, who has given two courses on statistics to journalists at the ASA, walked the staffers through the hierarchy of Green and Byar’s 1984 Hierarchy of Evidence (from anecdotal case reports to confirm randomized controlled clinical trials) and provided basic rules of thumb for judging the soundness of data. She also discussed the normal distribution, p-values, and confidence intervals.

The class received positive feedback from the staffers and enthusiasm for more classes on topics such as judging report conclusions, interpreting study results, and understanding data and graphics. Other suggested classes include survey methodology, a class on labor and economic statistics, and statistics for geographical information systems.

The original idea for such a class goes back to the 2009 congressional visits associated with the Joint Statistical Meetings that took place in Washington, DC, when 60 ASA members visited 120 offices. One of the staffers suggested statistics refresher classes and Sharon Hessney, an ASA member spending a year working in Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) office, met with the head of the Senate OET and sold the idea.

Foulkes was asked to give the first Stats for Staffers class because of the two successful workshops she has facilitated on statistical concepts in medicine for journalists and her support for the development of Stats for Staffers. View her slides here (PDF link).

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