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Session 2G: Public statistics: blogging with numbers

Hilda Bastian and Evelyn Lamb
Thurs, Jan 31, Noon-1:00 pm, Room 10

Description: We’ll be discussing the role of mathematics and statistics in public discourse. A huge amount of statistics is cited in the media, politics, and in data journalism – but it can be misleading. One of the most important roles of blogging about numbers for non-mathematician readers is making it clear when numbers are abused – and making the meaning of statistics clear without losing people’s attention. We’ll start the ball rolling with the implications of Nate Silver’s work last year with electoral poll analysis.

Session hashtag: #PublicStats

  • When you write about math or statistics, or include statistics in science or health stories, what are the ways that you try to communicate accurately – and engagingly - to the public?
  • What are your pet peeves and wishes about the way numbers are commonly used in science journalism?
  • What resources around working and blogging with numbers can you recommend? And what resources would you like to see?


Scio13 session 5E is gathering up resources for critically evaluating medical stories.

Blogging related to this session:

Some quantitative blogs: (please suggest more)
  • Mathbabe from New York: "Exploring and venting about quantitative issues"
  • Roots of Unity from Chicago: "Mathematics: learning it, doing it, celebrating it" (session co-mod)
  • Statistically Funny from Washington: "Because the comedic possibilities of clinical epidemiology are known to be limitless" (session co-mod)


Summing up ideas and issues of participants at today's discussion:

  • We're seeing so much hi-jacking of numbers and data to support sides of arguments: "partisan math"
  • Math is more liable to misuse than we wish it were
  • A concern for guarding against misinterpretation has to be there at every step along the way
  • Analogies that make sense to people - "around the same number of people at Wimbledon" - we need resources that gather lots of analogies and techniques that people can use: see Harvard Center list above - and please let us know of more
  • Blogging is a great way to do myth-busting, when ideas based on misuse or mis-understanding need to be turned around - and it's popular
  • Lists of places to get data (like
  • Numeracy in society is improving, but.... "So many of us still don't know how to count"
  • You can find important and interesting stories from frequency tables
  • You can use graphs to create images to communicate concepts - simple ones in Excel, or more illustrative one (example from Scicurious)
  • People need different "points of entry" into information,so the same message can be communicated in various ways: for some it's numbers, for others it's graphs, or tables, or a representative case study
  • Communicating lifetime risks in a way that won't be mis-interpreted (inspiration from others would be great!)
  • On the plus side, more writing acknowledges that correlation doesn't equal causation, and the awareness of the downfalls of relative risk communication, there were some "game-changers" recently - Nate Silver and the electoral polls, and Hans Rosling's popular video and documentary