Sunday, 2 January 2011

Statistical Revolution

The word ‘mathematics’ or ‘statistics’ often produces fear and panic in most people; however it is easy to forget this is something we do everyday. Fortunatly there has recently been resurgence in maths based popular books and websites, not discussing math and equations but using them to represent complex ideas or data in a simple, easily understandable, and often humorous way.

Recently the BBC cashed in on this rise in popularity by producing a program called “The Joy of Stats”, which was also available on the Iplayer 1. It was a popular show in spite of its cheesy title because it discussed an often scary and dry subject in a fun and exciting way. Statistics is one of several subjects which is hard to translate in to a TV show because of its often complex nature and impenetrable language, however this show focused on the statistics that are fun, useful and most importantly applicable to everyday life, and so was well received by the general public.

Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics 2 are two wonderful books which discuss hilarious correlations between people or things, examining the subjects from a purely statistical point of view, often exposing an interesting underlying relationship which previously would not have been identified. It is written in a very easy to read way, and once you start reading it is hard to put it down. The authors write articles for the New York Times and on the success of their two books they have now expanded the website to include a weekly podcast and blog to discuss new interesting topics they are currently exploring.

Another website, which has become a bit of a cult over the past few years, is GraphJam 3, a website which allows anyone to create venn diagrams and other charts about interesting correlations between current affairs or pop culture. This is a fun website, which again shows complicated ideas in an easy to understand and often funny way. Obiously these diagrams are not based on actual data but are a symbolic way to represent ideas. This website highlights the fact that maths is sill a very relevant and applicable subject for the general public and is not the scary monster it is made out to be, and over all that statistics can be used to produce a humorous image.

A clever new blog becoming popular at the moment is Indexed 4, a blog updated weekly with is a simple venn diagram on an index card representing a clever observation or interesting correlation. This is a highly amusing and very simple website; its popularity has spurred the author to produce a postcard book, which is currently available on Amazon 5. This is a nice idea because it allows people to use these highly effective and funny little diagrams as a greeting, while promoting the simplicity and effectiveness of mathematical diagrams.

Finally, David Spieglehalter, a professor at Cambridge University has created a wonderful little website called Understanding Uncertainty 6, in which there are several games and diagrams which allow you to alter the parameters and explore different ways to interpret and represent the same set of data depending on what you want to show. This allows you to change the settings and parameters and so alter the impact that a set of data has when represented in a graphical format. This is useful because it allows the user to better understand how the media can represent data in a biased way in order to get more of a reaction when presenting a set of complicated data, and gives you the tools to ask more questions and really asses the true meaning of the data.

It is wonderful to see maths moving in so many different directions and being used in such a variety of ways. It is important that maths and statistics changes and adapts with the changing generations and technologies in order to not be left behind, because without maths we would be unable to understand and interpret the complex world around us. 

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