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Stat Wars

An interactive show about Statistics during the Madrid European Researchers Night

A very short time ago, in an auditorium that is very, very nearby… a new hope arose. That would be the beginning of the movie about the show that was put on in the Auditorium of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) as part of the Madrid European Researchers Night. The spectacle starred a group of professors and doctoral students from the Statistics Department and ten students from the undergraduate program in Statistics and Business.

The plot of this movie would be very different from the first film in the Star Wars saga (A New Hope; George Lucas, 1977). There are no space ships, nor alien civilizations. In this story, we find ourselves in the midst of a period of data wars. The UC3M researchers attack from their base on the stage of the auditorium of the Leganés campus. In front of them, 750 spectators watch the battle unfold. The enemy is formidable: the evil Empire of Not Understood Statistics. And it is rapidly extending its reach. Thus the scientists decide to jump into the fray and fight with their knowledge. They manage to get hold of the secret plans for a terrible weapon: the “Star of Statistics as a Forgotten Subject from High School”, the destroyer of understanding. Pursued by the sinister agents of the empire, researcher Rosa Elvira Lillo (in the photo) and her partners in this adventure bring graphics, table, algorithms and… a lot of fun. Because this is one of the strategies they use to try to create critical awareness with regard to the handling of data and to restore interest in Statistics throughout the galaxy. 

Clearly, the point is to make science accessible, in a pleasant and engaging manner, in a relaxed atmosphere, using a rapid succession of presentations, videos, contests and activities. UC3M participated in the Madrid European Researchers Night with this show and a concurrent activity about electric motorcycles presented by the Science Park. More than ten institutions from the region collaborated in this event, which is meant to bring science to a broader public.  It is coordinated by the Fundación para el Conocimiento madri+d (Foundation for Knowledge) of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, as part of the European Union’s Framework Program for research and innovation.

The main objective of this initiative, which is simultaneously held in 300 European cities on the last Friday in September, is to bring the researchers to the public, so that they can see the work they do, the benefit their work offers to society and the effects it has on their daily lives. "I think it is a wonderful project and I would even say it’s almost a necessity. In times of crisis in every sense of the word like we are going through now, it is important that the man in the street sees the scientist as a normal person and a someone who benefits society", comments Rosa Elvira Lillo, tenured professor in the Statistics Department and the director of the undergraduate program in Statistics and Business at UC3M.

This was the goal of her team, made up of more than twenty researchers, professors and doctoral and undergraduate students, who worked tirelessly to make this type of information attractive to the attendees. The scientific coordinator of the event wanted to orient the show for the general public, particularly young students, who literally “hate the Statistics they are taught in high school, which are always taught in a quick and cursory manner, or the Statistics they are taught in the university without much time to discern the potential their applications hold.” There was also time for the youngest members of the audience, especially in the various workshops that were held. In one, for example, everyone was invited to write down their birthday in order to show that in groups of 23 people, there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them will have the same birthday. In another, the participants were shown some of the main tools that statisticians work with, they played Monty Hall, or the children played with a roulette wheel in order to learn about probability.

Afterwards, during the show, which lasted nearly two hours, the audience had the chance to test their knowledge in the contests that were designed as a kind of Statistics Trivial Pursuit. There was also time to listen to stochastic music on the piano; this kind of music is composed using the techniques of probability and game theory. The researchers also talked about how Statistics are present in magnetic resonance imaging, in applications like Facebook, in the melting of glaciers, and in football. They even dared to calculate the probability that Germany would crush Brazil (7-1) before their match in the 2014 World Cup: approximately 1 in 30,000.

The conclusion: we live in a world filled with data. And it seems that with a new hope, at least for Statistics, which is considered to be a profession with a great future that can be applied to an infinite number of different fields. Meanwhile, the evil lord, Math is Boring, who is obsessed with the idea of finding those rebel researchers, is sending millions of remote probes to the farthest reaches of space…He doesn’t know that in Statistics, the “hope” is the center of masses of a distribution of probability and that his origin is in games of chance, as related to the average expected earning by a gambler when he makes a large number of bets. So, he will lose. And they will win.


Photographs of the show on Flickr

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