Statistics is an interesting subject – really!

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20 August 2012
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Something has happened to give statistics a bad name, when it is an inherently fascinating and relevant subject. You know what I mean – you tell people that you teach, or work in or study statistics and they either depart, glaze over or tell you that it was their worst subject. How this came about is a topic for another day. For today I am interested in how we can change this.
I have just returned from three weeks in Victoria, Australia, where my family and I spoke and performed at an autism conference, we visited with family and we toured various sites (many of which were labelled Australia’s favourite…) During that time I have been asked what I do, and the responses have given me pause. I will illustrate with three stories.

Pat the lighthouse-keeper

After frequent urgings from the locals, we drove down the Great Ocean Road and stayed near the Cape Otway lightstation. (“Australia’s most significant lightstation”, the brochures tell us. Does that mean it has the smallest p-value?) We visited there early in the morning, having stopped to take photos of koalas waking up on remarkably thin-looking branches over the road. We paid our admission and went for a look around the compound, and visited the telegraph house. Then we climbed up the lighthouse, and when we emerged in the control room at the top, there, to our surprise, was a real-life lighthouse-keeper, complete with full beard and hat. He was part of the exhibit, and, as a retired lighthouse-keeper, was very interesting and informative. After chatting for some time, Pat asked us what we do. When I told him I teach statistics, I was stunned that he replied that that sounded interesting and he wanted to know more. So seldom is this the response, that I was almost speechless and didn’t have a very good answer prepared. I talked a bit about political polls, and he told me had always wondered how they could report those things when he had never been asked his opinion. So I explained a bit about sampling and margin of error. He was interested!

Janet in Torquay

This episode with Pat was a turning point for me. I decided that maybe statistics could be interesting to anyone. A few days later I was walking along the foreshore of Torquay with my sister-in-law, Janet, and told her my theory – that I could make statistics sound interesting to anyone within ten minutes. My husband cynically suggested they might just say they were interested to make me stop. But Janet kindly let me try out on her, and it took less than three minutes before we were discussing the Olympic medal boards, and how they could be ordered by different criteria, particularly as New Zealand would do remarkably well if the figures were adjusted per capita. She also volunteered that she is always interested in how big places are in terms of population.

Laura the humanities student

Next was Laura, my husband’s first-cousin-once-removed, who studies international relations. I asked Laura if she had studied statistics at all, and she replied that she wished she had! So I showed her my iPad app, and she had a fun time working through the first topic, watching the video and answering the quiz. Laura also shares my liking for Lego and told me of her recent experience with purchasing minifigures. Lego produces sets of 16 Minifigures which sell for about $5 each. They come in an opaque wrapper so that you don’t know which one you are buying before you open the packet. She was at the shop and looking at the picture of the sixteen in set 6, and decided she would like the pink minifigure and the one of the statue of liberty. She wondered how likely it would be to get the two she wanted, and how many she would have to buy to be sure of getting them. She bought two. Imagine her surprise when she opened up the first one and it was the pink one, and the second one and it was the statue of liberty! Assuming that there are equal numbers made of each of the minifigures (which I’m pretty sure isn’t true) and that they are randomly distributed in their boxes around the world, the probability of getting the two she wanted was one chance in 120 or 0.008. Talk about lucky! Theoretically, in order to have a 95% certainty of getting just one of the ones she wanted, she would need to buy 23 minifigures. To have a 95% certainty of getting both would take about 57. (Feel free to correct me if I got this wrong – I’ve changed the figures three times and it is starting to go around in circles in my head!)

Take up the challenge

I’m keen to try this challenge out on some more people – can I make statistics seem interesting to them – or rather can I reveal the inherent interest within a ten minute conversation? Maybe you can try it too. To help, think about these three potentially interest-provoking aspects of statistics,

  • the collection and communication of data (for example sports, economic, health…),
  • the use of probability to model chance events (for example game shows, weather and other games of chance)
  • the concept of sampling (for example political polls and market research).

Have an answer and illustrations ready and you will be amazed/delighted/gratified at how many people really do find statistics interesting when they know what it is about.

1 Comment

  1. […] This is not an isolated instance. In fact I was so surprised when a lighthouse keeper said that statistics sounded interesting and wanted to know more, that I didn’t really know what to say next! You can read about that in a previous post. Statistics is an interesting subject – really! […]

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