Statistics, boring? Not at all, we discover.
MENTION the word “statistics” and most people get turned off, being reminded of days at school or college immersed in tiring calculations and boring mathematics. Better to watch paint dry, many people would probably say.
But look at it this way. Because of statistics we now know that air travel is safer than travelling by car. According to air-crash statistics, the odds of being killed on a single airline flight is 29.4 million to one. Also, statistically, a person is 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark.
There are tonnes of interesting facts and fancies revealed by statistical studies. There is also serious stuff, such as the fact that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and that more people die from cardiovascular disease annually than from any other cause.
Statisticians take their job very seriously, and it’s not always just about fun facts or sports stats. Take, for instance, the words of the American Statistical Association at its website, amstat.org:
“The professional performance of statistical analyses is essential to many aspects of society. The use of statistics in medical diagnoses and biomedical research may affect whether individuals live or die, whether their health is protected or jeopardised, and whether medical science advances or gets sidetracked.
“Life, death, and health, as well as efficiency may be at stake in statistical analyses of occupational, environmental, or transportation safety. Early detection and control of new or recurrent infectious diseases depend on sound epidemiological statistics. Mental and social health may be at stake in psychological and sociological applications of statistical analysis.”
Which is why statistics is being celebrated globally by more than 2,000 organisations this year, the International Year Of Statistics. The event’s official website, statistics2013.org, states that “statistics have powerful and far-reaching effects on everyone, yet most people are unaware of their connection – from the foods they eat to the medicines they take – and how statistics improve their lives”.
The event aims to create more awareness about statistics and their impact, nurture statistics as a profession, and promote creativity and development in the field.
The next time you go to the supermarket, think about how your buying habits are going into the calculations of a statistician who will then analyse the trend and propose a promotional exercise that will target buyers like you. And you will most likely find that promotion irresistible.
“You go out shopping at the supermarket and you see all these prices,” says Dr Mark Chia, statistician and manager of analytics and sales support at the SAS Institute (formerly known as Statistical Analysis System), an advanced analytics company.
“These are the optimal prices that have been determined by statistical modelling on how best to get you to buy something. These companies will run hundreds of thousands of models and calculations to come up with the right prices to get you to buy.”
Chia is one person who knows about statistics and what it can do for our lives. He has been in the field for many years, starting first in an online dating service company. Called Cupid PLC, the public-listed company had an office in Edinburgh where they needed someone to set up a business unit, and Chia was roped in.
“We dealt with tons of numbers, about 15 million numbers worldwide,” says Chia.
“The idea was to find the right match for the different people. So you had algorithms with which you could identify them. For example, if they are young and sporty, who would be the best fit for them? Then you recommend potential profiles that may be of interest to them.”
And just how successful are those who try to find love online?
“Maybe 5% to 10%?” says Chia. “It’s not that high, but if we look at the trend now, more people are going online to look for love than they would with traditional methods. Internet dating companies are still doing very well because if you don’t have any money, what do you do? You sit at home.”
Chia thinks the International Year Of Statistics is a “big year”. He’s glad that effort has been made to recognise the significant contribution of statistics “to our lives in helping to solve complex problems and unravelling intricate mysteries”.
“Without statistics, much of what we know today as ‘facts’ would not have been possible to verify, such as that smoking is bad for you, that airplanes are safer modes of transportation than cars, and that you have more chances of getting struck by lightning than winning the US Powerball lottery jackpot.”
He says statistics are employed in nearly every field, from agriculture to engineering to sports, public health and even zoology.
“As statistics are the backbone for much of the analysis that happens, whether in predicting the rate of animal extinctions, finding out the precision of manufacturing processes or even calculating chances of sporting injuries, there is no shortage of areas in which statistics are meaningfully employed,” he says.
“Analytics is one of the latest fields that would see extensive use of statistical knowledge, particularly in dealing with ‘Big Data’, the industry’s term for the incredible amounts of data that companies and businesses are struggling to cope with now.”
Chia feels people need to be made aware of the many benefits of statistics and how statistics have impacted everyday life.
“There is the common misconception that the use of statistics is primarily for academics and beyond the reach of the lay person,” says Chia.
“That can be addressed through national campaigns that raise awareness about statistics.”
But are statistics always effective in predicting outcomes? Not every time, it seems.
“A couple of months ago there was an article in The Guardian newspaper on how to go about making investments,” Chia explains. “Basically they had a group of students as test subjects. And they also had a cat. They gave the students some money and asked them to invest in some companies and at the end of the year they’d see who came up best. Believe it or not, the cat came up the winner!”
That’s because there are certain things that statistics can’t help, and one of them is the stock market. And that’s because there are so many external factors that affect it.
“So it makes the market very difficult to predict,” says Chia. “It’s totally random how the stock market behaves.”
The son of a mathematician, Chia, 40, is an engineer by training and didn’t expect to move into the field of statistics. But ever since he did, he has found the field both challenging and fun.
He is of the opinion that sciences such as mathematics have always been portrayed as “boring and suitable only for the bright and smart people who don’t have a life”.
“But that’s not always the case,” says Chia. “You should embrace statistics because it is in our everyday lives. Everything involves maths and statistics in some form.
“I’m hoping that the International Year of Statistics will open up people’s minds to stats and maths and all the other sciences.
“It would move stats more into the limelight and identify more interesting statisticians who defy the norm.
“People may look at stats a little differently, like how (Stephen) Hawking has portrayed physics.”