News Numbers - Helipcopters

With plenty of numbers being used in the news, it's often very tempting to overplay the effect of the numbers, often quoting without some context.

Hence having personally coined the term "Numberator"....the use of a number without some necessary contextual denominator here's another example....Another of those news number naughties.... or news numberation.

So the UK is very helpfully sending aid to the Philippines to support victims of typhoon Haiyan.  HMS Darling is helping out but will be replaced by HMS Illustrious announces the Prime Minister...

"And I can announce today that once Daring has started its work, we are actually going to be able to replace in time HMS Daring with HMS Illustrious which is of course a carrier with helicopters, seven times as many helicopters as on HMS Daring and with the key ability to process fresh water. So we will be giving further assistance in the best way we can". 

So "seven times" as many helicopters, that's quite some emphasis.  That's also the edited sound bite that made the main news headlines.  So how many would that be in practice?

Actually it's seven helicopters in total.  HMS Darling had one and HMS Illustrious has seven.  So yes technically seven more.

"Seven times more helicopters" does seem to have a more powerful emphasis than "Seven helicopters". Seven times is a relative statement that can apply in multiple situations for higher numbers.  So if there were 2 helicopters on HMS Darling there could be 14 on HMS Illustrious, if 3 helicopters on Darling then 21 on Illustrious.    So while the relative statement can be applied for larger (and even much larger) scenarios, here it's applied in the lowest possible extreme scenario, but at the same time can, and arguably does, imply larger scenarios.  In the larger scenarios the "7 times" is helpful shorthand.  Rather than saying something in increased from 123 to 861, the "7 times" gives a better quicker sense.   So when we hear "7 times more" were more naturally drawn to assume it's shorthand for bigger numbers than simply 1 to 7.  

An there's another twist.  Of course while HMS Illustrious does have seven times more helicopters than the one on HMS Darling which is already deployed. The net increase in the Philliplines is of course only 6 extra helicopters.

One simple calculation step away from the raw data, but looses so much meaningful context in the presentation.  It's also a comparative measure rather than an absolute one.

This is a great simple demonstration of the powerful message around exploratory data analysis  The further we are from the underlying data, the greater the chances of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Add to that the messages from the Statistical Process Control movement,  "No data has meaning apart from it's context".

Statistics Views - Summit

For a couple of days, the great and good of planet earth's statistics academics and closely associated players
came together to take stock on the past, present and future.  All as part of the International Year of Statistics, and hosted by our own Royal Statistical Society (11-12 November 2013).

So a mixture of presentations, workshops and discussion.  Much like a conference, but very efficiently high level.  The subject diversity was huge and very technical too.  Here's my key generic messages from all of that.

Collaboration is key. A much stronger emerging collaboration between disciplines, and even between disciplines.  Add a call to "divide and conquer" as approaches to big problems need breaking down for the solutions, then building up the solutions.

Big data.  It's not just big it's granular and partial ("missingness").  To that I would add "now" and "open".  So big, open, now, granular and partial.  Potentially a new scientific paradigm.

Numeracy Paradox.  Recognising different reading ages and languages, maybe we need to explicitly target different numeracy levels.

Transparent Representation.  A clear desire for informed and impartial.  Prof. David Spiegelhalter's always so very engaging and eloquent here.  The example of the high profile unemployment figure which increased by 34k, with the appendix small print which gives an error rate of +/-87k, which means it could in fact have gone down.

Graphics over numbers.  Some pioneering representation of statistical risk, especially around breast cancer, which both avoids probability and an overall judgement, just presents both pro's and con's graphically - icon arrays and frequency trees.  Breaking new ground here, and can be slow going.  It's make your own mind up based on your own circumstances and  what's important to you.

Now over future.  Communicating the risk to life is evolving.  Rather than describing the risk of various heath issues as effective length of life, implicitly focussed on lost time at the end of life, the ideas now is to measure the current health age of body components.  So you might well be 40, but as a smoker your lungs have are already 50. It's about the power of now and accelerating through life, ageing faster.... that cigarette ages your lungs and extra 15 minutes right now....

Anecdotal Reasoning.  Broad aspiration to reduce that all round.

And the prize for greatest technical phrase goes to super polynomial hyperbolic relaxations, closely followed by  The Bag of little bootstraps".

A scientific paper will come in due course, and designed as a lobbying tool for more stats skills too.

Keep it Simple and Difficult

It was only 1981 when researchers asked students "How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the Ark?" to which 81% answered "two". It's only on reflection when people note that it was the arc of Noah, rather than Moses.  

This has lead to further research which focuses on this "automatic pilot" engagement, taking mental short cuts and missing key things.   That does seem to be challenging the "keep it simple"  mantra - uncomplicated, accessible and memorable - which could encourage the Moses Illusion.

Research is pointing to more effective mixed models of engagement, where short bursts of mental complexity - "cognitive dis-fluency" - can help overcome that automatic pilot.

So in a new Moses Illusion experiment, 88% went for Moses when the prose was presented in a easy to read type face, reducing to 55% when presented in a more difficult to read type face.    The more difficult type face seems to stimulate the recognition that there's a more difficult task in hand that requires, and then gets, more mental effort.  This disruption or "dis-fluency" also seems to encourage more abstract thinking.

So a multidimensional rather than uni-dimensional approach is likely to be an overall better way to engage....that balance between simplicity with some complexity.  That rather rings of the paraphrasing quote of Albert Einstein...that things should be as simple as it can be but not simpler.

Sources: Wired. Oct 2103.  Adam Alter, New York University Stern School of Business.