Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lies, damn lies and all that

The saga began on another gloomy, wet afternoon, much like today's. This was 1996. By some twisted turn of fate I had landed up in a classroom (if you know me, you know how less probable it was for me to attend classes on a lazy, rainy day in those days).

There was one thing, though. The professor was Saibal Chatterjee - the most charismatic individual I have known personally, and someone who single-handedly smashed my pathetic perception that college professors were generally boring people (I admit that I have seen many more who have built on what he had started).

He, too, did not seem to be too keen on teaching us Descriptive Statistics (how many names can you list that would immediately create an aversion for the subject in your mind?) on that afternoon. Instead, he decided to teach us the philosophy of statistics; of its power as a subject; of the fact that it, unlike any other science, teaches us to predict, and how each and every subject is virtually non-existent without using statistics to predict the future, investigate the past, venture the unreachable and visualise the unseen. It is a tool so powerful that it converts the gargantuan volumes of the unknown to predictable, guessable stuff.

A year or so before this I had taken up statistics because I had scored decently at +2, I loved solving cute problems involving urns and I thought that the word ANOVA was cool. In general, I was otherwise clueless whether I actually liked the subject or not. In a matter of fifty minutes he put that bit of reassurance into me: my decision was correct.

***

Fast forward. 2010.

My daughter knows vaguely that statistics gives one the power to grasp the unknown, to tell the future. Combining the above with the fact that it was my major at college, she's terribly impressed with me, and considers me a demigod.

On days when my daughter doesn't go to school, I almost always wake up before her. The other day I was in the loo, and I could clearly hear her walking from one room to another, calling out my name. When I finally decided to respond, she was (definitely) embarrassed at not having guessed my location earlier.

This conversation followed, from either side of the bathroom door:
I know you're embarrassed.
I know how you know this.
How?
You had studied statistics.

OF COURSE IT WAS STATISTICS! My brain, buoyed by the experience of studying peoples' behaviour over decades, had estimated that she was supposed to be embarrassed (given the prior chain of events) at 5%, or even 1% level of significance!

At that very moment I realised how powerful a tool it is. Unknowingly, my daughter actually reinforced the reassurance instilled in my brain by SC fourteen years back.

Watch out, world. The stats guys are on the prowl. They're ruthless, vicious, lethal, mean, median and mode. Underestimate them at your own peril.

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