The RSS Statistical Ambassador Initiative: giving statisticians a voice in the media

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

A common gripe in the statistical community is how statistics can sometimes be reported inadequately or without enough explanation in the media. The RSS has long campaigned to improve the statistical literacy of the nation and the Society’s latest initiative hopes to propel statisticians into the media spotlight.

Fellows of the RSS have been involved in improving the statistical understanding of those in the media - through the RSS Science Journalism Programme - for a few years now. However, this new project looks to tackle the issue from the opposite angle - improving the media understanding of those working in statistics. Through this, the hope is that the public will learn more about statistics - straight from the horse’s mouth.

The scheme aims to help up to 12 early-career statisticians (up to ten years in the profession) respond to requests from event organisers and the media as they happen. Journalists are often short on time so when a media request comes in for a statistician to comment on a topic, the Society wants to have a candidate ready for the opportunity.

David Spiegelhalter has been one of the most prominent statisticians to appear on our screens and airwaves in recent years. He has presented and contributed towards many newspaper and TV projects over the years and has become the go-to individual on communicating risk and probability. He is one of the few statisticians to have an entry on the Internet Movie Database. David will be involved in training the new statistical ambassadors and will offer them the benefit of his years of experience in dealing with journalists, producers and programme makers.

David’s profile also means he is often invited to give talks and participate in panel discussions at events large and small. This is an equally important part of the project as it all helps to introduce a greater understanding of statistics to the discussion of any topic with a statistical element.

Another regular voice from the statistical community is Kevin McConway. He has appeared in the media many times over the years, particularly on BBC Radio 4’s More or Less show. Kevin believes statisticians can provide a vital steer as to how statistics should be portrayed in a story.

‘It’s important to have someone who knows what they are talking about, and can guide the journalists and their audience on what the relevant finer points actually are, as well as what they might mean,’ he says. ‘That wouldn’t always be a professional statistician - there are scientists from other disciplines who are very competent statistically in their own area, and we know from the entries to the RSS Journalism Awards that there are some excellent journalists out there who know what they are doing statistically. But more involvement from professional statisticians is important.’

Former RSS President Denise Lievesley has faced the media many times in her career, especially in her previous role as chief executive of the Health and Social Care Information Centre. She says, ‘Dealing with the media can be frightening even for those who have a natural talent for communication. Particular worries can be that the media will push you into saying something which is beyond your level of competence, or will twist what you say to make it seem more provocative. So the opportunity to practise communication in a safe environment and to be mentored by someone with lots of relevant experience will be very welcome.’

Scientists have slowly become more media savvy over the years as the pace of media technology and reach has quickened. But have statisticians been left behind by this? Kevin says, ‘My impression is that we are less represented than quite a lot of science disciplines. There haven’t been many TV programmes on statistical subjects, of the kind you get in natural history, astronomy or physics. We haven’t (yet) got a statistical Professor Brian Cox. We probably see, hear and read as many statisticians in the media as say, the plant ecologists that I’ve worked with a lot - who also fit complicated models and come up with findings that are difficult to summarise in a headline.

Kevin also highlights the work done by those who use statistics as a vital part of their work, but are not statisticians in the pure sense. ‘It’s interesting that two of the media faces of statistics, Tim Harford and Hans Rosling, aren’t really statisticians at all. Tim is an economist and journalist who knows a tremendous amount about statistics but always says he’s not a statistician. Hans is a doctor in global public health, although he does sometimes describe himself as a statistician. But both of them are experts at interacting with statisticians and at getting statistical ideas across. What we need are more statisticians who can do that too.’

Denise also recognises this need and she has a lot of optimism for the statistical ambassador initiative. ‘I hope to see this scheme grow year on year so that it has a real impact on the pool of statisticians who feel comfortable working in a public environment. If this happens alongside the RSS reaching out to people already in the media whose interest in statistics can be nurtured we will see a difference in the way that statistics is understood and appreciated in society.’