In the previous part of this series we looked at baseball and the emergence and growth of statistics in the game. From a casual perspective, a player’s batting average tells you, to three decimal places, the historical probability of getting a hit (getting on base by hitting the ball in fair territory) the next time at bat. It is fun for the spectator, of use to the on-field manager, perhaps of financial importance to the player, and clearly of importance to the owner who is investing in winning. For most of us, however, it is of little consequence.
In most instances, statistics are unseen or ignored in our everyday lives. For example, the duration of traffic signals at road intersections have a statistical base, sometimes overridden by switches. You approach an intersection such as State Road 4 and Rover in White Rock and trigger the switch on Rover for a left turn (it’s buried in the pavement). At two in the afternoon the signal lights respond rather promptly and you make your turn. If you approach the same intersection at rush hour after work, be prepared to wait. The statistics of traffic patterns affect the design of the system.
As a society we make collective decisions about societal control. These decisions affect how our society functions internally, how we set and abide by the rules, and what freedoms we are allowed. We also make collective decisions about society’s interaction with the environment. What is recyclable and what is not. And we make decisions individually about our own actions. Throw it in the trash or the recycle bin.
In the United States, the population is around 320 million. That’s 320 million bubbles bouncing around needing some level of agreed control. In part one of this series we looked at fission of Uranium and the measurement of the cross section of the U235 atom in barns – a statistical measurement of the probability of interaction between an external neutron and the nucleus of the atom. The physicists had a very large number of atoms to work with, much more than 320 million. Yet the sheer magnitude of the numbers means that estimates have to be made, hopefully good and proper ones. But what should we be estimating statistically? While I cannot provide a specific answer, I do note that we have statistically divergent fields of statistics that have emerged during the evolution and growth of humanity.
At the very beginning of this column, we identified 18 areas of change, evolution and growth that affect, almost control, the destiny of humanity and this planet we call Earth. As humanity we control Earth as a place to live and we endeavor to ensure our own continued existence. In these processes we study history and preferences to make choices, individual and collective, by predicting the future. We use statistics, right or wrong, good or bad, to make decisions. But what decisions, where do we do it?
A broad perspective includes many areas of study, endeavor, and control. As an example, insurance involves predicting risk, a probability. Banking uses statistics to measure risk. Medicine needs statistical systems to measure life, its maintenance, and correctional interventions. Science is dependent on statistics to understand how things work and the development of models representing our vision of reality. Engineering has essential reliance on statistics to ensure the things we build are sound (and needed). Businesses are dependent on statistics for survival. Government controls large bodies of bubbles, called humans (7.6 billion in the world in July 2018 according to the U.N.). And now statistical techniques are essential in machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence.
Statistically speaking, this list of areas is probably very incomplete. For example, we personally use statistics everyday based on the observations we make and have made. We keep track of our bank account (or should) or other form of wealth storage and project our income for money management. We make estimates of how much we need for food, how much government is going to take, and planning for the future. We may call it something else, but the data points are statistics. And these statistics are affected by the areas cited above. So perhaps we should explore these areas in more detail.