Get me a p value, stat!

Do you shudder when you encounter a p-value? Have little confidence in confidence intervals? Well, you’re not alone, but perhaps today, on World Statistics Day, we can all recognise the significance (p=<0.05) of statistics in our lives. Here we look at the history of World Statistics Day and the celebrations of the day to date (n=3), as well as the fundamental part that stats play in how we digest information.

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World Statistics Day is celebrated on the 20th October, and comes once every 5 years. It is coordinated by the Statistics Division of the United Nations Department of Economics and the theme for this year is ‘Connecting the world with data we can trust’; an important message, which focuses on trust, authoritative data, innovation and the public good in national statistical systems. But how did World Statistics Day come about, and why is it celebrated?

The first World Statistics Day was held on 20th October 2010 with the theme ‘Service, professionalism, integrity: celebrating the many contributions and achievements of official statistics’. Five years later, in June 2015, the United Nations General Assembly designated 20th October 2015 to be the second World Statistics Day, and decided to celebrate it every five years on that date (resolution 69/282) . The theme for the second World Statistics Day in 2015 was ‘Better data, better lives’. This year, the World Statistics Day website provides a platform for the global statistical community to come together virtually. The purpose of World Statistics Day is to highlight the importance of the profession and practice of statistics worldwide.

The field of statistics is defined by the American Statistical Association as ‘the science of learning from data, and of measuring, controlling and communicating uncertainty’. It encompasses the process behind decision making and predictions, as well as affecting how we make advances in scientific research. The history of the statistical analysis of data is usually traced back to a man called John Graunt, who authored a book in 1662 called Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, which was widely concerned with public health statistics. The book used previously unheard of statistical methods to estimate the size of the population of London and England, as well as birth rates, mortality rates, and the prevalence of certain diseases.

Nowadays, we live in a world of information. Statistics are used in many walks of everyday life, including weather forecasting, financial investments, quality control of products, and insurance. Not to mention the (statistical) elephant in the room: the use of statistics in epidemiology such as the current pandemic. The need for timely and high-quality statistics is clearer than ever, as evidence-based decision making relies on them, for the design of short-term intervention and longer-term action plans. The use of statistics is vital in clinical trials for researchers to draw accurate conclusions from data that has been collected. Perhaps most well recognised is the ‘p-value’, which denotes the presence or absence of statistical significance. Statistics are also widely used in medicine, for the analysis of data such as treatment waiting times and hospital bed availability and occupancy.

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During World Statistics Day this year, the United Nations Statistics Division are officially launching the Global Network of Data Officers and Statisticians, which is a professional network for statisticians, data officers, and geospatial information experts around the world. Basic health, social and economic data can often be absent, especially in developing countries. This network aims to help national governments to build resilient and sustainable data and information systems to implement Sustainable Development Goals through collaboration, knowledge-sharing, networking, and technical support.

Keen to join in with the festivities? If you’re partial to running, you could participate in ‘Runners for statistics’, a virtual run taking place around the world today. You can run anywhere and for any distance you like (no marathons required!); join the Strava group to get involved. You can also post to social media using the hashtag #StatsDay2020 to raise awareness.

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