RSS holds first training day for new statistical ambassadors

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Presenting statistics to the public is never an easy task. Use too many numbers and formulae and you risk alienating your audience. Use too few and you can end up oversimplifying the issue and distorting the facts. The RSS takes this issue very seriously, which is why November 25 2014 marked the first training day for the Royal Statistical Society’s newly formed group of statistical ambassadors.

The RSS Statistical Ambassador Scheme was originally conceived to increase the number of statisticians that the Society could call on to help respond to requests from the press and elsewhere for experts who would be able to explain stats in a concise and accurate way. The initiative is part of the wider RSS getstats campaign to help improve public understanding of statistics.

‘As data and statistics become more and more prominent in the public eye, it’s important for statisticians to share their expertise,’explains RSS head of education and statistical literacy, Scott Keir. ‘Discussing what the data show us, and what it does not, is key to helping people understand many issues and debates, and helps to show the relevance and power of statistics in the modern world.

The Society has recruited 12 early-career statisticians, who convened at the RSS last month to attend a day-long training workshop. Expert science communicators David Spiegelhalter (Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge) and Kevin McConway (Professor of Applied Statistics at the Open University and RSS VP for Academic Affairs) were on hand, joined by presenter/ journalist/comedian Timandra Harkness, to impart some of their knowledge and skills to the ambassadors.

Many of the new recruits, including Jamie Sergeant - a lecturer in medical statistics at the University of Manchester - wanted to explore opportunities for working with the media. ‘The scheme seemed like a perfect fit to me, with specialist training in public and media engagement and mentorship from inspirational figures like David Spiegelhalter,’ he said.

Andrew James Williams, a research fellow at the Farr Institute in Scotland with a background is in public health and epidemiology, explains why he put himself forward for the scheme. ‘It seems that barely a day goes by without another news story proclaiming that something we eat, do or live near is going to kill us, or help us live forever,’ he said. ‘Being statistically literate helps us decide which news stories require our attention.’

Michael Holmes, who works in financial services, cites his interest in statistics beyond his day job as a key reason for joining the scheme. ‘To be a statistician is to be a storyteller, he says. There is always something behind the numbers. It’s exciting to find out what it is and share that with an audience.’

The day began with a session from David Spiegelhalter and Kevin McConway on how to talk about statistics. This was followed with some group work where the ambassadors explored best ways sum up their work and explain statistical concepts succinctly.

After lunch, Timandra Harkness, who performs science-themed stand-up comedy and recently wrote a Radio 4 documentary Data, Data Everywhere, led a session on presentation skills. A professional photographer was also called in to take photos of the ambassadors, for use both by the Society and by the ambassadors themselves when talking to the media. The day ended with dinner at a local restaurant, giving the ambassadors a chance to get acquainted and begin to build a mutual support network.

The day proved to be inspirational for both the participants and the trainers involved. ‘The first day exceeded my expectations,’ said Michael Holmes. ‘There was a lot of energy in the room and everyone got to explore new ways of communicating clearly.’

Andrew James Williams was also enthused by the sessions. ‘So far, I have learnt that even though many statistical concepts are nuanced and complicated, it is possible with a bit of imagination to communicate them in novel and engaging ways,’ he said.

The trainers were pleased with the progress made in this first training session. 'The ambassadors already have so many wonderful ideas on how to communicate what statisticians do,' said Kevin McConway. 'They’re really going to make a difference to the way we’re seen by others.'

In the spirit of the day’s enterprise, David Spiegelhalter summed up the day in one sentence: ‘It was a great day getting to know these enthusiastic communicators of statistics - with some very funny moments.’

A second training day is planned for spring 2015.

Photos courtesy of bigTimages/RSS

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