www.statistics2013.org/The International Year of Statistics (“Statistics2013″) is a worldwide celebration and recognition of the contributions of statistical science. Through the combined ...
Odds Lot: Statisticians Party Like It's 2.013 x 10 Cubed
About 88% Through Celebratory Year, 100% in Field Find It 'Sexy'
Nov. 15, 2013 10:32 p.m. ETLOUVAIN-LA-NEUVE, Belgium—When Ingrid van Keilegom tells people she is a statistician, they usually reply fearfully, " 'Oh, no,' " she says. "To them, it sounds like math."
Prof. van Keilegom and her colleagues at the Catholic University here, about 19 miles from Brussels, are out to change that impression. To demonstrate how useful—and ubiquitous—their field is, they recently held an all-day conference, "Statistics, your friend in daily life, whether you like it or not."
Their event was part of the International Year of Statistics, a global campaign to increase the odds that nonmathematicians will think positively about number crunching.
Roughly 88% complete, the year gets a grade of 90% so far from Ron Wasserstein, head of the American Statistical Association and a lead coordinator of Statistics2013, as the 365-day function is known. He tallies up more than 2,250 participating organizations from almost 66% of the world's countries.
Activities have included "Music and Probabilities," a concert in Mexico City of compositions based on advanced mathematical principles called stochastic processes. The Fields Institute, a math brain trust in Toronto, held a competition for the best tweet about what the world would be like if the "normal distribution" bell curve had never been discovered. A photo contest was held with an $800 prize. It invited kids to show how statistics "advances the well-being of people."
Statistics befuddle many people, but they're all around us. Test your skill with a handful of questions prepared by the Britain's Royal Statistical Society Centre for Statistical Education at Plymouth University.
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Lies and damn lies are still uncool. "Statistics is cool," says Mr. Wasserstein.
Some data points he and other organizers cite: Movie star Brad Pitt portraying statistics-obsessed baseball manager Billy Beane in the movie "Moneyball," statistician Nate Silver's rise to celebrity for accurately predicting elections and the popularity of statistically oriented books including "The Black Swan," about improbable events. "Big data" is in vogue and "quants," or quantitative analysts, are hot properties on Wall Street.
Google Inc. Chief Economist Hal Varian raised eyebrows in 2009 with a comment, since frequently repeated, that statisticians would have "the sexy job in the next 10 years." The International Year of Statistics is flaunting the allure.
"I have to pinch myself to make sure this surge in recognition is not a dream," Mr. Wasserstein wrote in a scholarly publication earlier this year. "If it is, don't wake me!"
Statistics2013 began as a move to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli's "Ars Conjectandi." His treatise on gambling, which was written in Latin, is considered the first scientific analysis of probability. Statistics evolved from probability and expanded to the study of genetics, epidemiology, business management and other fields.
Today, statistics are everywhere, as entries to the Statistics2013 video contest enumerated. One winner, "A Day Without Statistics," starts by explaining the data analysis in quality control of toothbrushes and toothpaste. It continues until sunset with Internet search engines and credit-card security measures. Another video, "Why Statistics Matters?" offers a litany of answers, concluding: "To make life better."
Musical entries titled "My Statistician Friend" and "Stats Can Be Cool, You See" earned honorable mentions. Go figure.
Statistician Rob Mastrodomenico says many of his fellows do vital work in public policy, pharmaceuticals and academia. "Then you've got me, doing sports statistics, which many people may find less worthwhile," says the 32-year-old founder of Global Sports Statistics, near London. "But I enjoy it."
Global Sports uses historical data on teams' results to try predicting the outcome of matches. The science is similar to forecasting weather based on reams of meteorological readings or stock-market performance based on years of price swings.
Mr. Wasserstein says it used to drive him crazy that sports is the only way many people encounter statistics. But he says he has "been able to embrace that more lately," as sports have upped their statistics game. He notes approvingly that all the World Series contenders this year used data-heavy "Moneyball" strategies, most notably the champion Boston Red Sox.
Statisticians acknowledge that their craft can be misused to distort or misinterpret data. "As with a knife in a surgeon's hands, it can save a life, but it could also kill someone, in the hands of a crook," says Sastry Pantula, dean of the College of Science at Oregon State University. He says one goal of Statistics2013, which he helped organize, is to encourage more informed use of statistics.
Prof. Pantula knows that some people react badly to the subject. Years ago, a dentist asked him his profession. When Mr. Pantula replied, the dentist started railing about a stats class that almost ended his dental education. Prof. Pantula says that made him uneasy. "He was drilling my tooth!"
Statistics2013 aims to get kids started in the subject earlier so they'll feel more comfortable swimming in numbers. Branko Rumenović, a high-school -economics teacher in Ogulin, Croatia, says the first mention of statistics "provokes wonder and fear" among his students. But the 17- and 18-year-olds come around after projects like a study of the national census they conducted this year.
Mr. Wasserstein says the improving image and awareness of statistics is "the most wonderful change" since he attended graduate school in 1978. He recalls telling people back then about his studies and getting puzzled responses like, "Are there really enough numbers to memorize to get a Ph.D. in statistics?" Another common reaction was that "it had to be the most boring thing in the world."
Geert Molenberghs, a biostatistics professor at Belgium's Hasselt University who helped organize the recent Belgian conference, says telling people at a cocktail party that he is a medical statistician sparks more interest than it would if he dropped the medical part. But he remains modest because his wife is an astrophysicist, and astrophysics is really sexy. "I go off and get a drink," he says.
And while the year of statistics and media attention given to elections, climate change and financial scandals may have boosted public interest, he remains circumspect in a statistical sort of way. "The baseline from which we are starting is very low," he says.
"People talking about statistics in the streets," Prof. Molenberghs figures, "that's still a dream."