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Ask Professor Rosenthal 1 – On Chance, Luck, and Statistics: “I Had No Need of That Hypothesis”


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/04/12

Dr. Jeffrey S. Rosenthal is a Professor of Statistics at the University of Toronto. Here we talk about the Computer Age and statistics.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You wrote a new book entitled Knock On Wood. Why, in the Computer Age, is statistics more relevant than ever?

Professor Jeffrey Rosenthal: Because of automation, we have access to more data than ever before. Every time you purchase something with a credit card, or enter a bus with your transit pass, or visit a web page, or pass a road toll, that is logged in a data file somewhere. The result is an unprecedented amount of information. The challenge then becomes, how can we process that information?  How can we interpret it?  How can we learn from it?  How can we use it to our advantage, to make better decisions and allocate our resources more wisely? That is where statistical analysis comes in.

Statistics and probability are also used in the computer algorithms themselves.  If you take a public opinion poll, you have to sample people randomly to get an accurate result.  Similarly, computers are using randomness more and more to learn complicated relationships, which in turn allow them to perform amazing tasks like recognising faces and songs and fingerprints.

Jacobsen: Our world is infused with chance. We live with limited knowledge. We are continually faced with choices. Right there, we face a world of uncertain choices, and so chance and luck. Also, we can be faced with bunk beliefs throughout the culture: astrology, horoscopes, numerology, lucky charms, and the like. How can knowledge of the way the world works and the basics of statistics, chance, and, indeed, luck, set us on a proper path to critical thinking about the world?

Rosenthal: In both my books (Struck By Lightning and Knock On Wood), I have tried to argue that just a little bit of understanding of the principles of randomness — probabilities, and selection biases, and statistical significance, and so on — can go a long way towards helping us to interpret the evidence around us more accurately.  I think superstitious beliefs arise on the one hand because humans feel a need to “explain” outcomes even if they are actually random, and on the other hand because humans don’t have a good understanding of low probability events, and how to avoid what I call “luck traps” which trick us into drawing conclusions which can’t be drawn.  The more data and information we have, the more important it is to think critically and wisely about the world around us and what we can truly learn about it.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Rosenthal.


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