Populations, Samples, Parameters, and Statistics

The field of inferential statistics enables you to make educated guesses about the numerical characteristics of large groups. The logic of sampling gives you a way to test conclusions about such groups using only a small portion of its members.

A population is a group of phenomena that have something in common. The term often refers to a group of people, as in the following examples:

  • All registered voters in Crawford County

  • All members of the International Machinists Union

  • All Americans who played golf at least once in the past year

But populations can refer to things as well as people:

  • All widgets produced last Tuesday by the Acme Widget Company

  • All daily maximum temperatures in July for major U.S. cities

  • All basal ganglia cells from a particular rhesus monkey

Often, researchers want to know things about populations but do not have data for every person or thing in the population. If a company's customer service division wanted to learn whether its customers were satisfied, it would not be practical (or perhaps even possible) to contact every individual who purchased a product. Instead, the company might select a sample of the population. A sample is a smaller group of members of a population selected to represent the population. In order to use statistics to learn things about the population, the sample must be random. A random sample is one in which every member of a population has an equal chance of being selected. The most commonly used sample is a simple random sample. It requires that every possible sample of the selected size has an equal chance of being used.

A parameter is a characteristic of a population. A statistic is a characteristic of a sample. Inferential statistics enables you to make an educated guess about a population parameter based on a statistic computed from a sample randomly drawn from that population (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.Illustration of the relationship between samples and populations.

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For example, say you want to know the mean income of the subscribers to a particular magazine—a parameter of a population. You draw a random sample of 100 subscribers and determine that their mean income is $27,500 (a statistic). You conclude that the population mean income μ is likely to be close to $27,500 as well. This example is one of statistical inference.

Different symbols are used to denote statistics and parameters, as Table 1 shows.