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Maths in Action

On the 12th December, 22 lower sixth mathematicians attended a series of lectures at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster focusing on how mathematics is used in real life applications. Some of the highlights included a presentation from the Bloodhound Project, who are developing a car that they hope will be able to travel 1,000mph, and a lecture by the infamous Kyle Evans who constructed a formula to calculate how many presents we should receive on each of the 12 days of Christmas! Esme Glen (lower sixth) sums up a third talk which focused on the the use of statistics below:

Maths in Action 2018: Living is a Risky Business

One of the fascinating lectures at the Maths in Action event was by statistician Jennifer Rodgers. She talked about the often misconstrued and incredibly relevant world of risk statistics, telling us about how, despite the horror-story headlines in various newspapers, bacon won’t really kill you; just because a headline claims a fry-up will triple your risk of pancreatic cancer, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid all pig products. Instead, these often shocking headlines, which may well change how we live our lives, are frequently based on tiny increases in risk (from 1 in 80 to 3 in 80, for example), and usually compare two extremes, i.e. non-bacon-eaters with those who consume a full English every morning. Additionally, studies often don’t adequately account for external and control factors; an example was genetic factors when studying the effect of air pollution on dementia risk. In short, don’t believe everything you read in the Daily Mail!

Jennifer also told us about the often hilarious results of confusing correlation and causation. A good example is ice cream sales and death by drowning. The two have a strong positive correlation, but it seems illogical to assume there is a link between the two. Instead, hot weather causes increases in both: this is known as a confounding factor. Plenty of other examples can be found on the website ‘Spurious Correlations’, which is well worth a look at. Swimming pool drownings and the number of Nicolas Cage films released have a 66.6% correlation. Coincidence?

Through the Royal Statistical Society, Jennifer has also done some work investigating the claims of Ryanair. First, she debunked their claim to randomly allocating all seats by proving that the probability of four scientists (and later an entire hen party) getting all middle seats was fantastically low, and then showed that their customer satisfaction ratings were artificially high as the result of flawed data gathering techniques. In response, Ryanair told her that “95 per cent of Ryanair customers haven’t heard of the Royal Statistical Society, 97 per cent don’t care what they say and 100 per cent said it sounds like their people need to book a low-fare Ryanair holiday,” which seems like a rather childish way of saying “you’re right, but we don’t want to admit it.” Jennifer Rodgers’ talk was hugely entertaining, and excellent proof that statistics can be interesting and funny, as well as very useful outside the classroom.

Esme Glen (lower sixth)