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Be gone Mr Pearson’s correlations coefficient! – Statistics and the Dead Poet’s Society

“Rip, Rip, Rip … this is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your heart and soul!” exclaims Mr. Keating (Robin Williams).

The book ripping scene in the Dead Poet’s Society is a classic. A class of young men, quietly await to have their minds filled with instructions on how to interpret the rhyme and meter of poems using precise methodology but instead get told: “Be gone J. Evans Pritchard, PhD!”

If it’s been a while or you haven’t seen the scene you can watch it here.

There are times when I’m going over statistics for psychology when I feel like embracing Mr Keating’s ethos. My brain says: “Be gone Mr Pearson’s correlations coefficient!” And it doesn’t stop there, it continues with “rip out those pages on p-values, sum of squares, and sample standard deviation!”

It’s a war between seeing the humanity in people and reducing them to data points. I do not like judging people by finite constructs and numbers.

As the storyline in Dead Poet’s Society develops, the students learn to appreciate emotions and see things from new perspectives. This is what I want from psychology, to understand the variation and uniqueness of people.

In the movie, the young men learn to “suck the marrow out of life”. Then it all comes crashing down when constraints of reality gain too much ground on the battlefield. So too, the reality that statistics is an unavoidable part of psychology confronts me.

In the final scene of Dead Poet’s Society the class is faced with learning J. Evans Pritchard’s rhyme and meter, but, as the credit roll, the audience is left with the inference that those formulas will not stoically imprint upon their minds. Thanks to the Captain’s embodied teaching strategies, interpretation based purely on intellectual analysis is offset by a knowing that our inner world of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviour have an intangible quality. So too, I face psychology statistics with an appreciation of their usefulness that is offset by a knowing that they cannot define the heart and soul of a person.

1 thought on “Be gone Mr Pearson’s correlations coefficient! – Statistics and the Dead Poet’s Society”

  1. Thank you for your sharing. I am worried that I lack creative ideas. It is your article that makes me full of hope. Thank you. But, I have a question, can you help me?

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