What are the odds?

10 Nov

Numbers are important.  But so is understanding them.  I am going to be using a lot of statistical testing in the later stages of my PhD research project, and as a result I have been reading a lot about numbers lately.  I was always pretty good at maths, but I usually found it boring.  In school it was a lot of equations, without a whole lot of practical application.  I never really saw the point, beyond the basic every day uses.  Over the years though, I have learned to love numbers and maths (maths can be thought of as the language of numbers, which may be cheesy, but it can help you to think about their relationship, if you’re not a big maths person).  Oh, and if you’re reading this outside of the UK, I apologise for repeatedly using the term ‘maths’ instead of ‘math’, I know it is going to drive you insane, but it is actually accurate when using it as a shortened form of the plural noun (and even though grammar is also one of my big loves in life I had to be convinced of this).

Maths is waaay more than just equations and results.  If you know how to interpret the results (which means understanding both the data you use in an equation and what the equation is actually ‘doing’ to the numbers) then you can learn some pretty phenomenal things about a lot of subjects – and subjects that people do not normally associate maths with… it is not just for the Sheldons and the Leonards of the world.

I know that a lot of people are of the opinion that they do not understand mathematics.  They think they cannot possibly understand the data and that they will never understand the equations that scientists use in their research, which means that maths is pretty much useless for them beyond what they already know and use.  Wrong!  Everyone has the capability to understand mathematics and, more importantly, what it can teach us about the world.  Buuut (and there is always a but) it all comes down to how it is presented to you.  Because while everyone is capable of understanding maths, not everyone has been educated to understand maths in the form in which is is often presented (mainly dull formats), which is important for researchers to remember – especially if they want to the public to care about their results!

In the build up to talking about my own research, I thought that I would share an example of what I am talking about.  There is a blog post that you should read (or skim through, whatever) called: What are the chances of your coming into being?  It discusses the probability of you existing (as you) today.  Now, I’m not going to get into a debate about the fact that the actual probability of you existing is 1, because when discussing all known-to-have-happened events, the probability is always 1:1.  I know that is the case when talking about probability, but that is not really the point of this post.  And yes, Ali Binazir uses a lot of assumptions in his equations, therefore affecting the accuracy of the result, but what I want to look at here is how the whole thing is presented.  The blog post is really interesting, but it is more than a little bit dry, especially if you are not interested in maths.  You would be forgiving for not really caring about the results, especially if you gave up halfway through the blog post.  However, designer Sofya Yampolsky of Visual.ly created an infographic based on the blog post, which presents the exact same data (and includes a lot of information from the equations) to present the exact same results… only it is way more interesting.

The same thing, presented in a more engaging form is more useful, because more people are going to pay attention.  The same is true in science and academia.  If no one can understand your work, you can pretty much guarantee that they are not going to care about your results.

The only big problem I have with the blog post and the infographic?  “Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.”  It is not miracle (mir·a·cle/ˈmirikəl/  Noun:  1. A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural and scientific laws and is considered to be divine.) it is maths.  Unless you are going to be incredibly pedantic, in which case feel free to respond in the comments with ‘it’s science’, ‘it’s evolution’, ‘it’s chance’, etc.  I know that no one I know is that pedantic though!  Ha!


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