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Posts Tagged ‘statistics

“A certain elementary training in statistical method is becoming as necessary for everyone living in this world of today as reading and writing”*…


The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society.

Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history. We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how – if at all – we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside…

The ability of statistics to represent the world accurately is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over – and putting democracy in peril.  William Davies provides historical context, a clear diagnosis of the problem, and thoughts on a response in his important essay, “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next.”

* H.G. Wells, World Brain (1938)


As we take note of numbers, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Roger Newland Shepard; he was born on this date in 1929.  A cognitive scientist and emeritus professor at Stanford, he has received both the National Medal of Science and the Rumelhart Prize.  While his contributions to his field are many, Shepard is probably best known as inventor of multidimensional scaling, a method for representing certain kinds of statistical data in a plane (or in space) with minimal distortion, so that the data can be apprehended by non-specialists.



Written by LW

January 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”*…


As we’ve noted before, 2016 seemed a bumper year for the Grim Reaper.  Jason Crease tested that perception against the data…

It’s become cliché that unusually many prominent people died in 2016. Is this true?…

Find out at “Was 2016 especially dangerous for celebrities? An empirical analysis.

[Image above: source]

* François Rabelais


As we usher in the new, we might spare a thought for the first woman in the Western world considered to be a mathematician: Maria Gaetana Agnesi, she died this date in 1799.  While she thought and wrote broadly about natural science and philosophy, she is best remembered for her work in differential calculus– perhaps most particularly for her work on the cubic curve now know as the “witch of Agnesi.”


Written by LW

January 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable”*…


… but happily, progress is made.

As we fight hangovers (both from New Years festivities and from the slow-motion train wreck that was 2016), Max Roser reminds us that in many critical dimensions life has gotten better- much better– around the world… and he reminds us why it’s so very important that we understand this

A history of global living conditions in 5 charts.”

* “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”   ― Martin Luther King, Jr.


As we look on the bright side, we might that it was on this date in 1890 that E.A. McIlhenny, the son of Tabasco brand pepper sauce inventor Edmund McIlhenny and manager of the family condiment empire, shot and killed a 19′ 1″ long alligator, reputedly the longest American alligator ever recorded.  McIlhenny, who was an amateur naturalist and conservationist, made the claim in one of his four books, The Alligator’s Life History.



Written by LW

January 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”*…


Your correspondent is heading into his annual Holiday hiatus (regular service will resume on January 2), so by way of being sure that readers have something to occupy them in the meantime…

We’ve spent time before with Hans Rosling (“By the Numbers…” and “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell“*…), the man who reasons that experts cannot solve major challenges if they do not operate on facts. “But first you need to erase preconceived ideas,” he says, “and that is the difficult thing.”  Nature has done us all the service of collecting a wide variety of his amazing, mind-changing presentations…

Hans Rosling knew never to flee from men wielding machetes. “The risk is higher if you run than if you face them,” he says. So, in 1989, when an angry mob confronted him at the field laboratory he had set up in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rosling tried to appear calm. “I thought, ‘I need to use the resources I have, and I am good at talking’.”

Rosling, a physician and epidemiologist, pulled from his knapsack a handful of photographs of people from different parts of Africa who had been crippled by konzo, an incurable disease that was affecting many in this community, too. Through an interpreter, he explained that he believed he knew the cause, and he wanted to test local people’s blood to be sure. A few minutes into his demonstration, an old woman stepped forward and addressed the crowd in support of the research. After the more aggressive members of the mob stopped waving their machetes, she rolled up her sleeve. Most followed her lead. “You can do anything as long as you talk with people and listen to people and talk with the intelligentsia of the community,” says Rosling.

He is still trying to arm influential people with facts. He has become a trusted counsellor and speaker of plain truth to United Nations leaders, billionaire executives such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and politicians including Al Gore. Even Fidel Castro called on the slim, bespectacled Swede for advice. Rosling’s video lectures on global health and economics have elevated him to viral celebrity status, and he has been listed among the 100 most influential people in the world by the magazines Time and Foreign Policy. Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says, “To have Hans Rosling as a teacher is one of the biggest honors in the world.”…

More of Rosling’s story– and lots of his short-but-world-view-changing presentations– at “Three minutes with Hans Rosling will change your mind about the world.”

* Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”


As we celebrate facts, we might send amazing birthday greetings to John Nevil Maskelyne; he was born on this date in 1839.  An accomplished stage magician, he was also an inventor, perhaps most notably, of the first pay toilet (the “penny toilet,” origin of the phrase “spend a penny”).

His son, Nevil Maskelyne, was also a magician and inventor– and the perpetrator of the first instance of electronic hacking.

John Nevil Maskelyne


Happy Holidays!  See you in the New Year…

Written by LW

December 22, 2016 at 1:01 am

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics”*…


In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with averages and medians: the average temperature in New York in April is 52 degrees; Stephen Curry averages 30 points per game; the median household income in the United States is $51,939

But the concept of taking many different measurements and representing them with one best number is a relatively recent invention. In fact, there are no historical examples of the average or median being used in this manner prior to the 17th Century.

So how did the concept of averages and medians develop? And how did the average triumph as the measurement of our times?  The supremacy of the average over the median has had profound consequences about how we understand data. In many cases, it has led us astray…

More at “How the Average Triumphed Over the Median.”

* Benjamin Disraeli


As we average it out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that employees of the City of New York held a “Parade of Statistical Graphics,” replete with large graphs on horse-drawn floats, and a photograph with people arranged in a bell-shaped curve.  The crowd’s favorite was the float devoted to the decline in death rate due to improvements in sanitation and nursing.



Written by LW

May 17, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Data without some sort of analysis is just noise”*…


The Scientific American Reference Book of 1913, compiled by Albert A. Hopkins and A. Russell Bond, is available to read on the Internet Archive… a delightful snapshot of the concerns of readers of the magazine a hundred years ago, as well as an interesting tour through infographic design strategies au courant at the time.

“The Editorial staff of the Scientific American receive annually about 15,000 inquiries covering a wide range of topics,” explained Hopkins in a preface. While the magazine had earlier published a Scientific American Cyclopedia of Receipts, Notes, and Queries (which did well, selling 25,000 copies), the book didn’t quite fill the needs of every reader; letter-writers wanted general information about the world, not just scientific formulas.

They wanted information about the Antarctic region, the Panama route, shipping, navies, armies, railroads, population, education, patents, submarine cables, wireless telegraphy, manufactures, agriculture, mining, mechanical movements, astronomy, and the weather…

The infographics are also, of course, an opportunity to compare those times to ours (e.g.: the most recent data on expenditure on public education in the U.S. suggests that “teachers salaries”– “instruction”– has fallen to 54% of the total.)

More backstory and examples at “A Treasure Trove of Awkward Early-20th-Century Infographics.” Page through the entire volume here.

* Irene Ros, Bocoup; interview, October, 02, 2014


As we compress, 1000 words at a time, we might send statistically-significant birthday greetings to Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet; he was born on this date in 1796.  An astronomer, mathematician, statistician, and sociologist, he was instrumental in introducing statistical methods to the social sciences. From 1825, he wrote papers on social statistics, and in 1835 gained international recognition for publication of Sur l’homme et le developpement de ses facultés, essai d’une physique sociale, in which he used the normal curve (which had previously been applied to error correction) to illustrate a distribution of measured human traits about a central value–  pioneering the concept of “the average man or woman.” One of his primary foci was public health: his establishment of a simple measure for classifying people’s weight relative to an ideal for their height, the body mass index (AKA, the Quetelet index), has endured with minor variations to the present day.



Written by LW

February 22, 2016 at 1:01 am

“I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians”*…


Nathan Yau, the force behind the fabulous Flowing Data, was lamenting the loss of a classic resource, when he decided to take on the challenge himself:

Ever since I found out about the Statistical Atlas of the United States, historically produced by the Census Bureau, it annoyed me that there wasn’t one in the works for the 2010 Census due to cuts in funding. The last one was for 2000. Actually, the 2000 edition was called the Census Atlas, but whatever. With more data than ever, it seems like there should be one.

Maybe that’s why there’s isn’t one. Too much data, too much of an undertaking, and too many bureaucratic decisions to make.

The first Atlas, by Francis A. Walker, was published in 1874 using the data from the prior 1870 Census. Counting cover, credits, and all that, it was 56 pages.

I got to thinking, hey, I could do that. And if I did, I wouldn’t have to be annoyed anymore. So I recreated the original Statistical Atlas of the United States with current data. I used similar styling, and had one main rule for myself. All the data had to be publicly available and come from government sites

See the stunning– and stunningly useful– results (with larger versions of each chart) at “Reviving the Statistical Atlas of the United States with New Data.”

* “I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians. People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer engineers would’ve been the sexy job of the 1990s?”  – Hal Varian, The McKinsey Quarterly, January 2009


As we discriminate between the median and the mean, we might spare a thought for Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson; he died on this date in 1948.  A classics scholar who was also an accomplished biologist and mathematician, Thompson is best remembered for On Growth and Form (1917, new ed. 1942), a profound consideration of the shapes of living things, starting from the simple premise that “everything is the way it is because it got that way.”  Thus one must study not only finished forms, but also the forces that molded them: “the form of an object is a ‘diagram of forces’, in this sense, at least, that from it we can judge of or deduce the forces that are acting or have acted upon it.”

The book paved the way for the scientific explanation of morphogenesis, the process by which patterns are formed in plants and animals.  Thompson’s description of the mathematical beauty of nature inspired thinkers as diverse as Alan Turing and Claude Levi-Strauss, and artists including Henry Moore, Salvador Dali, and Jackson Pollock.  Peter Medawar, the 1960 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, called On Growth and Form “the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue.”



Written by LW

June 21, 2015 at 1:01 am

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