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How to use statistics effectively

Why use stats?

  1. It is one way to provide support for your argument, akin to citing an example.
  2. It draws upon the authority of established institutions and lends credibility to your claim.

In addition, if you use statistics effectively, it can also create a good overall impression as it suggests that you are well-prepared for and well-versed in the subject of discussion.

However, you need to be wary of these common pitfalls:

  • Stating the statistic without citing the source.
    One of the reasons why we use stats is to “draw upon the authority of established institutions” (Point 2 above).  It defeats the purpose if we state a figure and not cite the source (or “authority”).

  • Quoting a statistic from a dubious source
    It will work against you if the source is not a credible one (see Point 2 again).

  • Making up a statistic
    You may think you can get away with it, but it will create a very poor impression for the marker once he/she finds out.  Singapore has the highest smartphone penetration rate in the world according to a survey done by Deloitte in 2015.  This means that it is very likely that your GP teacher owns a smartphone and can easily verify the figure you cited.  (Yes, I am citing my source and also explaining its relevance, which brings me to my next point below.)
  • Stating the statistic without explaining its relevance.
    The figures do not speak for themselves.  It is your job to interpret them, and link them to the point that you have made.

How to use stats effectively?

First, make sure that you have a clear topic sentence apart from your statistic. While this is not a strict rule, it can serve as a visual reminder that your statistic is meant to support the topic sentence and should not exist as stand-alone.

Second, develop the argument before inserting your statistic or example.

Third, cite the source and provide other necessary information. The source is the expert opinion you are using to lend weight to your argument (Who did the study? Who published the figures?). Including information like year and name of the survey/study also helps to put the statistic in a clearer context.

Fourth, interpret the statistic.  Explain what you think the statistic shows and link it to your earlier argument in the topic sentence.

Look at the negative example below and see how this four-step method is applied to make the same statistic more effective.

Sample argument:

42% of Americans did not turn up to vote.  That was how Donald Trump became the President of the United States.  If that is what democracy is about, then it is nothing to be proud of. 

We can see that the purpose of the statistic is probably to highlight a flaw in democracy, but the argument is not clearly articulated and there are some gaps in reasoning. There is also no source or context given for the statistic.  

It is a pity because the student probably has done some homework on the statistic, but the effort is not paying off.  Let’s apply the four-step method to improve on the argument:

1. Topic Sentence

What was the student trying to say in the above argument? We can try to crystallise the idea and state it in a topic sentence:

A well-functioning democracy requires healthy participation from its citizens.

2. Develop the argument

Next, elaborate and explain the claim in the topic sentence:

A well-functioning democracy requires healthy participation from its citizens.  This is because a democracy makes decisions based on the choices of the people.  If a significant proportion of the citizens becomes inactive or abstain from participating, then the collective decision will not be truly representative of the whole.  

3. Cite the source

A well-functioning democracy requires healthy participation from its citizens.  This is because a democracy makes decisions based on the choices of the people.  If a significant proportion of the citizens becomes inactive or abstain from participating, then the collective decision will not be truly representative of the whole.  According to the United States Census, 42% of Americans did not turn up to vote for the US Presidential Election 2016.

4. Interpret the statistic

Amended argument:

A well-functioning democracy requires healthy participation from its citizens.  This is because a democracy makes decisions based on the choices of the people.  If a significant proportion of the citizens become inactive or abstain from participating, then the collective decision will not be truly representative of the whole.  According to the United States Census, 42% of Americans did not turn up to vote for the US Presidential Election 2016.  The resulting victory for Donald Trump was a shock to many, and some suspect that had the 42% voted, the result might have been different.  Coupled with the numerous street protests carried out during Trump’s inauguration and his subsequent low approval rating on Gallup polls, one cannot help but wonder if this is an example of a failed democracy that has lost the trust of its people.

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