On the Public Understanding of – and Public Engagement With – Statistics: Reflections on the OU Statistics Group Conference on “Visualisation and Presentation in Statistics”
Last week I attended the OU Statistics conference on Visualisation and Presentation in Statistics (VIPS) (notes: here and here)
One of the things that struck me from conversations and some of the presentations was that statistics – and in particular public engagement around statistics – appears to be lagging science efforts in this area.
When I first moved to the OU as a lecturer a dozen or so years ago, I got involved with various activities that, at the time, were classed as “public understanding of science and technology”, though at the time the whole sci-comm area was in a state of flux and ideas were moving towards a focus on public engagement with science. As a member of the NESTA Crucible one year, I saw how there was also concern around engagement with science and technology policy, and how it could be moved “upstream”, to a point where dialogue with various publics could actually contribute to, and even influence, policy development.
(The NESTA Crucible experience significantly influenced my world view and was one of the most rewarding schemes I have ever been involved with…)
Since then, it seems to me that the school science curriculum has witnessed a similar change, with a move away from a focus purely on the basic science (and perhaps industrial applications?) to one that includes a consideration of socio-technical considerations (one might say, policy implications…)
At the VIPS event, one of the phrases that jumped out at me in at least one presentation (aside from repeated mentions to RSS…;-) talked about difficulties in promoting the public understanding of statistics. Ally this with the fact that the school maths curriculum seems not to have evolved so much, (“averages”, means and histogram still seem to be the focus?!) and I wonder: is statistics today where science was a decade or so ago?
The recent rhetoric around – and actual release of – “open public data” suggests that, as citizens and journalists, there is an increasing number of opportunities to hold governments and public bodies to account using evidentiary data and maybe also engage in data-driven (or at least data informed) policy formulation. With so much data out there, and so many possible ways of combining and interrogating it – so many possible different questions to ask and places to ask them – there are increasingly opportunities for informed amateurs to make a very real contribution (in the same way that amateur astronomers can make a real contribution to the recording and analysis of astronomical observations).
The growing instrumentation of our world also means that there is increasing amounts of data about ourselves that we can have access to in the form of personal data dashboards (for example, think of various social media/reputation tools, but also expect to see various tools appearing that allow you to mine your health/fitness, financial or shopping transaction data, for example). These dashboards will be visually rich, and designed to give at-a-glance overviews of the state of this, or that quantity or metric. But to get most from them, we will need to include more complex and powerful visualisation types, and find a way of helping people learn how to “see” them, “read” them and interpret them/
So to what extent do we need to engage with the “public understanding of statistics” as compared to the development of skills in the public appreciation of statistics and improvements in the way the public can engage with each other and with policy makers in discussions where statistics play a role? (Public engagement in statistics? Public engagement with statistics?)
Over the last few weeks, I’ve started trying to immerse myself in the world of statistical graphics, on the basis that our perceptual apparatus is pretty good at pattern detection and can help us get to grip with visually meaningful properties of distributions of data without us necessarily having to understand much in the way of formal statistics. (Of course, the visual apparatus can also be conned by misleading graphs and charts, which is where some semblance of critical understanding and, dare I say it, statistical literacy, comes in.)
My intuition is that it will be easier to develop a visual literacy in the reading and interpretation of charts (i.e. building on “folk statistical graphics/visual statistics”) than a widespread mathematical understanding of statistics. (I suspect that for most people, pie charts – and more recently ‘donut’ charts – as well as line graphs and simple bar charts are about the limit of what they are comfortable with, along with thematic maps (in particular, choropleth maps) and (in recent years again?) proportional symbol maps. I also know from asking even well informed audiences that awareness of more recently developed techniques, such as treemaps, are not widespread.)
At the moment, the infographics designers appear to be leading the charge into public consciousness of data-driven graphics, but as I’m finding out, the stats community has a wealth of visual techniques already to hand that are maybe “sounder” in terms of deriving visual representations that reflect statistical properties and concerns than the tricks the infographics crowd are using. (This is all just my anecdotal opinion, and not based in any formal research!)
Many infographics build on a common visual grammar (in the West, line charts up to the right increase over time; for area based charts, the bigger the area the more of something is being represented). But many infographics are also limited by the chart types we are all familiar with (line charts, bar charts, coloured maps…) Maybe the place to start is the stats community finding ways of introducing new-to-the-majority statistical graphs into the mainstream media along with a strong narrative to explain what is going on in those charts (and not necessarily so much discussion about the actual maths and stats…)?