Sunday, September 14, 2008

Statistics and Sword Swallowing

As a graduate student studying mass communication using quantitative methods, I have taken many statistics classes. Summarizing what's happening in the world with a simple language made of only numbers and Greek symbols, statistics is efficient and elegant. But it's a dull storyteller, giving audience the vitamin pill instead of juicy pie version of a story. But what can you do? I just can't see how anyone can make statistics sexy.

Well, one man can.

Two days ago, I watched a lecture of Hans Roslings on the TED conference web site. He made the impossible possible: statistics can be exciting and entertaining as sports. Armed with a mountain of statistics and a data animation software he developed, Roslings, a professor of global health from Sweden, presented the international trend of health and economic development in the past several decades. Watching those country bubbles moving and chasing one another on the screen accompanied by Roslings' colorful commentary and instant replay, I really felt like watching a football game. The audience was cheering too. Amazing!

I wish my statistics class can be exciting as that. I wish I can teach as Roslings did: there's no dull subject, only dull ways of teaching it. I also checked out Roslings's software. Google has bought it and turned it into a Google Gadget called Motion Chart. That's a future toy for me to play.

What does statistics have to do with sword swallowing? They demonstrate the same idea: the impossible can be possible. Just watch what Roslings did at the end of the lecture.

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