The Day I Started ‘Liking’ Statistics

February 25, 2013

in Blog

By Noby Leong @NobyLeong

I’m proud to admit that back in high school, I was a bit of a mathaholic. I was one of those kids that saw the beauty in trigonometry and looked forward to solving problems on circle theory. But no matter how many x’s I solved or asymptotes I never crossed, there was one area of maths that I just hated: stats!

I definitely know I’m not the only one that shivered when that dreaded S word was even mentioned. The world of averages, standard deviations and p-values was enough to make me take up geography (which, surprise-surprise, wasn’t a fun choice either). But this year is the International Year of Statistics and I am determined to at least fall ‘in-like’ with stats.

The machinery of statistics is a way to deal with numbers. But not just a few numbers, a LOT of numbers. Data is everywhere, and being able to make sense of all the 1s and 0s is important in noticing trends. Without statistics, we wouldn’t be able to understand if a new drug was effective or if the climate was actually changing. Without stats, we would never know what the betting odds would be in this year’s Melbourne Cup.

numbers

When it comes to big data, there are few things that match the scale of the human population. There are some 7 billion of us, each living in different corners of the Earth, with different incomes, life expectancies and birth rates. The population is set to explode to 9 billion people by the year 2050 and it’s a bit gross to think that the very air we breathe will be the exhaled by-product of an extra 2 billion strangers crammed into one tiny Earth.

Many people think that after 2050, our population will continue to increase, billion after billion until we eventually eat our way out of existence. It’s certainly something I thought would happen, and the only thing that appeased me was the knowledge that I would probably be dead by the time things got out of control. But fear not, our population is actually stabilising.

Global human growth rate is on the decline. Thanks to population management measures, among other things, the number of babies being born is stabilising at about 2 babies per woman. Liberating people from poverty, increasing the health of newborns and educating women have all contributed to smaller families. This is even with some countries that are trying to increase their population, like Australia with their baby bonus.

And how do we know all of this? STATS! Statistics has enabled us to map trends over many decades, to hone in on how growth rates have changed over a certain period of time and in response to what external forces. Statistics has told us that we’re not going to over populate our tiny planet and I won’t have to inhale someone else’s bad garlic breath on a routine basis.

Of course, this piece of mind doesn’t exactly make me want to start ‘liking’ statistics. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely appreciate what statistics has done, but in terms of ‘liking’ it, well I’d rather memorise geographical formations. That was until I came across Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling is a renowned statistician and occasional sword swallower (like actually). He was brought to the public eye with his engaging public seminars, including a few Ted Talks, often about global population. Let me tell you first off, this guy didn’t win Swedish Statistician of the Year award for nothing!

Analysing stats in a small windowless office with a computer is one thing, spreading the word and getting people excited about it is entirely another. Rosling uses animated statistics to make you want to know what’s going on. His moveable graphs which change over time give you a real sense of what is going on in the world.

This short YouTube video gives you a pretty good example.

He explains the relationship between wealth and life expectancy using a simple x-y scatter plot. He begins in 1810 and as the years roll on, so too does the scatter. We can see in real-time what’s happening each year. We can see the countries that are moving in and out of poverty and how their life expectancy changes accordingly. We see the dramatic decrease in health during World War II and the rise of China as a global super power.

While it’s safe to say that I won’t be in love with statistics any time soon, with the help of people like Hans Rosling, I’ll begin to like it that little bit more. After watching his videos, I started using words like ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ in the same sentence as ‘statistics’, and not in a sarcastic way. Perhaps you might too. So let’s raise a glass to the International Year of Statistics!

Noby Leong (@nobyleong) is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide and editor of The Other Side of Science (othersideofscience.com).

Republished with permission by the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), Australia’s unique national science hub.