A Panorama of Statistics: An interview with authors Eric Sowey and Peter Petocz

Features

  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 08 Dec 2017

Earlier this year, Wiley was proud to publish A Panorama of Statistics: Perspectives, Puzzles and Paradoxes in Statistics, which offers a stimulating panoramic tour – quite different from a textbook journey – of the world of statistics in both its theory and practice, for teachers, students and practitioners.

At each stop on the tour, the authors investigate unusual and quirky aspects of statistics, highlighting historical, biographical and philosophical dimensions of this field of knowledge. Each chapter opens with perspectives on its theme, often from several points of view. Five original and thought-provoking questions follow. These aim at widening readers’ knowledge and deepening their insight. Scattered among the questions are entertaining puzzles to solve and tantalising paradoxes to explain. Readers can compare their own statistical discoveries with the authors’ detailed answers to all the questions.

Lending itself equally to reading through and to dipping into, A Panorama of Statistics will surprise teachers, students and practitioners by the variety of ways in which statistics can capture and hold their interest.

Alison Oliver talks to Professors Eric Sowey of the School of Economics at The University of New South Wales and Peter Petocz of the Department of Statistics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

thumbnail image: A Panorama of Statistics: An interview with authors Eric Sowey and Peter Petocz

1. Congratulations on the recent publication of your book A Panorama of Statistic: Perspectives, Puzzles and Paradoxes which is described as ‘a stimulating panoramic tour – quite different from a textbook journey – of the world of statistics in both its theory and practice, for teachers, students and practitioners.’ How did the writing process begin?

It all began in 2003 when we wrote to the journal Teaching Statistics, offering to contribute some lively, quirky, and yet thought-provoking questions on statistics in the form of a regular ‘Statistical Diversions’ column, for the enjoyment of readers. Our offer was enthusiastically accepted by Gerald Goodall, the Editor at that time. Each column opened with a short overview essay on some statistical theme. Next came our answers to the previously published set of five questions and then five new questions.

We modelled our writing on Martin Gardner’s widely admired ‘Mathematical Games’ columns, written for every issue of Scientific American from 1956 to 1981 and subsequently republished in a series of books. Gardner’s columns dealt with a vast array of mathematical topics, but omitted almost entirely any mention of statistics. Just as Gardner presumed his readers to already know something of mathematics, so we imagined our readers as people who already know something (even if only a little) of statistics and are curious to discover much more.

We produced 36 Statistical Diversions columns over a dozen years. Along the way we were pleased to find that our way of taking our readers along for a tour of engaging themes in statistics was very broadly appealing. That got us started on reformulating our columns as a book. It turned out to be a very extensive process.

2. What were your main objectives during the writing process?

Firstly, we were seeking to appeal to a very wide readership. Statistics serves many other disciplines – though always for the same goal: to draw out systematic and reliable information from jumbled masses of real-world data. We wanted our book to appeal to all users of statistics, not just to those who call themselves statisticians. That includes teachers of statistics in the many fields where users can be found. It also includes learners of statistics and ‘educated laypeople’, as long as they already have some familiarity with statistical ideas.

Secondly, we were writing a particular kind of popular book – one that might be described as ‘adventures in statistics for the initiated’. Interestingly, that’s what makes our book unique in its field. You see, there are lots of other popular books on statistics on the market, but the authors routinely assume that their readers have no familiarity with the subject matter. As a result, when the authors talk about ‘exciting’ aspects of statistical theory and practice, it’s precisely that assumption that limits their ability to show readers exactly why these matters are exciting. In other words, readers may be prepared to accept that parts of statistics are exciting, but they might not feel the excitement themselves. A Panorama of Statistics, by contrast, offers its readers the kind of understanding that lets them feel the excitement.

Thirdly, we were seeking to lead our readers to engagement with statistical ideas. Engagement is different from excitement. Excitement shows involvement; engagement signals commitment. We hope that some of our readers will go beyond engagement to discover their own fascinations in statistics.

Finally, we were writing a book to uncover an enormously rich tapestry of ideas, both theoretical and practical. The fundamental ideas, however, are few. These fundamentals come up in many chapters, though in differing contexts. To avoid unnecessary repetition we needed to take care to cross-reference comprehensively.

3. You investigate unusual and quirky aspects of statistics, highlighting historical, biographical and philosophical dimensions of this field of knowledge. What led you to decide to write the book in this way?

A Panorama of Statistics describes both the highways and the byways of the field of statistics. The highways are routes of activity, heavily travelled by statistical practitioners doing their ‘day job’. The byways are lightly-visited, yet delightful, paths in the statistical landscape where the rumble of practicality is muted. In its place, there is quiet reflection (on the philosophical underpinnings of statistics) and recognition (of the historic achievements of the creators of modern statistics).

We chose to write about both the highways and the byways of statistics because they are closely interwoven in any broad understanding of the discipline. Most textbooks of statistics focus strictly on the highways – that is, on the derivation and application of statistical techniques. We highlight the byways because it’s likely that our readers will know much less about those areas. There are numerous books devoted to the history of statistics, to the philosophy of statistics and to the biography of statisticians. Our book is unusual in that it takes a thoughtful look at all of these areas.

4. If there is one piece of information or advice that you would want your reader to take away and remember after reading your book, what would that be?

Statistics can be used to throw light on (almost) every area of life.

As we say in chapter 4, 'we may not be able to use statistics to answer the question of what songs the Sirens sang, but it can be used to [at least partially] answer just about anything else'. We hope that what they discover of the 'highways and byways' of statistics will cumulate to leave this overall impression on our readers.

...we were writing a particular kind of popular book – one that might be described as ‘adventures in statistics for the initiated’. Interestingly, that’s what makes our book unique in its field. You see, there are lots of other popular books on statistics on the market, but the authors routinely assume that their readers have no familiarity with the subject matter. As a result, when the authors talk about ‘exciting’ aspects of statistical theory and practice, it’s precisely that assumption that limits their ability to show readers exactly why these matters are exciting. In other words, readers may be prepared to accept that parts of statistics are exciting, but they might not feel the excitement themselves. A Panorama of Statistics, by contrast, offers its readers the kind of understanding that lets them feel the excitement.

5. Who should read the book and why?

Anyone and everyone who is interested in exploring the world around them on the basis of (mostly) quantitative information. As already mentioned, we have tried to make the book accessible to as wide a range of readers as possible, from those with a professional level of statistical training to those with only a basic background in things quantitative.

6. Why is this book of particular interest now?

There is a growing emphasis today on specialization and on the technicalities of individual fields of knowledge and practice. Of course, this is very necessary in many situations. However, the other side of the coin – a broad and coherent understanding of ‘enabling’ disciplines, such as statistics, that serve many other fields – seems to be receiving less interest. To us it is clear that this other side is just as important a component of education.

7. Were there areas of the book that you found more challenging to write, and if so, why?

We each have our own areas of expertise within statistics, and topics that were more unfamiliar for one of us (e.g. index numbers for Peter, probability for gamblers for Eric) were led by the other. One of the hardest aspects was finding easily understood ways to explain complex ideas or results (for example, the proportion of time one person is ahead in the coin-tossing game of question 11.5), but without over-simplifying the quite deep result.

8. What is it about the statistics that fascinates you?

We wrote our first chapter about this. We felt our readers shouldn’t be kept waiting! As we explain in this chapter, chance events are intrinsic to every experience of the real world. Since time immemorial, mankind has tried to work out how best to cope with the impact of chance in everyday life. Today we know that statistics is our best guide for doing that, provided that the likelihood of occurrence of those chance events is, in some way, measurable. We find it fascinating to be working in a field that is so widely and supremely influential.

9. What was it that introduced you each to statistics as a discipline and what was it that led you to pursue your careers in economics and statistics, respectively?

Eric: My academic field is econometrics. It brings together economics and statistics. As its name (‘econo-metrics’) suggests, it deals with the measurement of economic variables and the quantification of economic relationships in a world in which chance affects all the variables. The most common applications of econometrics are to produce forecasts of those variables, that are as accurate as possible, and to model alternative economic policies for the same (political) goal, so as to find the policy that will be best in terms, say, of efficiency and fairness.

When I began my undergraduate study of economics at the University of Sydney in the 1960s, economics and statistics were taught in parallel. I very much wanted to see these fields brought together and quizzed my teachers about what scope there was for that. Econometrics was then too new a field and they were largely unresponsive. It was only several years later that I discovered, during my Master’s course at the London School of Economics, just how powerful can be the role of statistics in economics. Given the central place of economic principles in setting policies for the welfare of the nation, econometrics became for me a field of great practical significance. The more I worked in this field, the more I found economics and statistics engaging – in both senses of the word!

Peter: I was always fascinated by anything numerical from an early age. I recall as a boy reading the books of Martin Gardner and waiting impatiently for others to be published, so it is particularly pleasing for me to acknowledge our continuation of his approach. When I went to university I studied every aspect of mathematics that I could: pure mathematics, applied mathematics, mathematical statistics. As I progressed through my studies, I realised that for me statistics was the most fascinating aspect of the mathematical sciences and I broadened my view of it from a purely mathematical discipline to one that enabled me to engage with and investigate (almost all) aspects of the world around me. My academic career has been based on this view of statistics as a key to the world. Writing our columns for Teaching Statistics and then this book has been one way to convey my fascination about the nature of statistics to a wider audience beyond my colleagues and students.

Related Topics

Related Publications

Related Content

Site Footer

Address:

This website is provided by John Wiley & Sons Limited, The Atrium, Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 8SQ (Company No: 00641132, VAT No: 376766987)

Published features on StatisticsViews.com are checked for statistical accuracy by a panel from the European Network for Business and Industrial Statistics (ENBIS)   to whom Wiley and StatisticsViews.com express their gratitude. This panel are: Ron Kenett, David Steinberg, Shirley Coleman, Irena Ograjenšek, Fabrizio Ruggeri, Rainer Göb, Philippe Castagliola, Xavier Tort-Martorell, Bart De Ketelaere, Antonio Pievatolo, Martina Vandebroek, Lance Mitchell, Gilbert Saporta, Helmut Waldl and Stelios Psarakis.