Sunday, June 04, 2017

Breathing Life into Statistics

There is lies, damn lies and statistics. And then there is Prof. Hans Rosling.

Rosling was Swedish specialist in Global Health, and a tireless evangelist for the cause of statistics - especially the art of presenting dull, boring numbers in stunning visualizations.

The first time I saw Rosling in action was in this TED video, made about 10 years ago:

Earlier this year, in February 2017, I was saddened to know that Rosling had died of pancreatic cancer. And today, for some reason, I found myself going through a BBC documentary on him, followed by an urge to revisit a few of the simplest statistical tools that I had learnt to use, but forgotten from disuse and disinterest, over a period of time.

While I could sail past the concept of Averages, and even wrap my head around the Normal (Poisson) Distribution, I had forgotten all about Standard Deviations (SD), Statistical Correlation and Dependence..

As explained in this video, the SD process consists of (1) collecting data (2) calculating the average/mean of the data set (3) subtracting this mean from each of the data units, and squaring the differences, (4) calculating, once again, the mean of the squared units, and, finally, (5) calculating the square-root of the 'mean of differences' to get the Standard Deviation, which tells you how diverse the numbers in your data-set are.

Why exactly do we go through this five-step process? What is the logic behind all this squaring and subtracting? I still don't know...but it does remind me that I had asked the very same question in a classroom many years ago, and failed to get a satisfactory answer. Then, as now, the whole thing seemed like a form of gymnastics with numbers.

And yet, Hans Rosling seems like the sort of guy who would have given me a clear, logical answer, and triggered in me a passion for data. How wish I had come across such a teacher, a few decades ago!


TED Video - "The Best Statistics You've Never Seen!" -

Don't Panic: The Facts About Population -

Gapminder Foundation -

Obituary (Feb., 2017) - Hans Rosling: Data visionary and educator dies aged 68 -

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