Meet the RSS president: A Q&A with David Spiegelhalter

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Nearly halfway through his presidency of the RSS, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter talks about the Society's latest initiatives and its relationship with the Office for National Statistics.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Mainly the dog wanting to go out for a walk. But after that’s done, then listening to the radio generally gets me enervated: so many claims are made without evidence to back them up, and interviewers are not good at challenging ‘how do you know that?’. So after shouting at the radio for a bit, I am ready for a day working on communication and statistical literacy.

What excites you about the coming few months in RSS?
The Society is in fine form, and there’s many great meetings coming up on data visualisation, inequalities, and so on. It’s also the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, and Alan Milburn will be speaking on this at the Society on 29th November. But I’m particularly excited at the launch of the new Statistic of the Year competition – we’re hoping for some fine examples of important or surprising numbers.

How do you see the relationship between RSS and ONS?
They are very closely attached, helped of course by [current National Statistician] John Pullinger’s influence and many members in common. It’s claimed that there is decreasing trust in expertise and the scientific method, but trust in ONS is holding up well – I believe this is helped by the increasing attention being paid to communication, and an increasing role for expert statistical commentary. But the RSS should always stay as a ‘critical friend’ of ONS, UK Statistics Authority and all the other organisations we work with.

What advice would you give to young statisticians?
First, you should congratulate yourselves at getting into a fascinating and worthwhile profession. Then try to get involved in as wide a range of projects as possible, to not only grow both your technical and presentational skills, but also to get a feel for how statistical science fits in with other endeavours, and where it can really help. I don’t think this can be taught – it has to be experienced as a type of apprenticeship. I would of course, also recommend you sign up for membership of the RSS.

What's on your wish list for the RSS?
Obviously I want the RSS to grow and thrive, and it’s got a good strategy for doing so. I would like to see members able to contribute more to the huge variety of activities, and to see statisticians and data scientists develop into mutually supportive communities, with increasing numbers of people considering themselves as both.  But I suppose my biggest wish is for statistical science to have a prominent voice in society, and for data literacy to be considered an essential skill for citizens. 

An episode of In Our Time on statistical inference would also be a welcome surprise, but that’s probably hoping for too much.


This interview was first published on the ONS website.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) David Spiegelhalter statistical literacy RSS Beveridge Lecture RSS Statistic of the Year

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