# Statistics is an interesting subject – really!

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.

## 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.