The History of Stats + Stories | Stats + Stories Episode 100 / by Stats Stories

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We have reached episode 100 of Stats + Stories and therefore we felt like it would be a good time to have John Bailer, Richard Campbell and Rosemary Pennington sit around and talk about what all has brought us here and what more to expect in the future.

+ Full Transcript

Rosemary Pennington: Since 2013 stats and Stories has brought you everything from sports statistics to the science of cat videos to the utility of p-values. Featuring the insights of experts from the social sciences, political science, and the hard sciences, today we’re flipping things around as we are the experts as we mark the 100th episode of Stats & Stories, where we expire the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. I’m Rosemary Pennington. Stats & Stories is a production of Miami University’s Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film, and the American Statistical Association. Joining me as always in the studio are regular panelists John Bailer, Chair of Miami Statistics Department, and Richard Campbell, former and founding Chair of Media, Journalism and Film. And our producer Charles Blades, I think asked you all for some questions leading up to this episode, so Charles, I think you have the first one, yes?

Charles Blades: Yes, I do, Bill Chavis asks what was the inspiration for the show? And how did you all get to know each other?

John Bailer: You want me to start Richard?

Richard Campbell: Sure, you start John.

Bailer: Well, way back when, you know this was way before the start of our podcast days, Miami was considering quantitative literacy requirement. And one aspect of that was a faculty learning community that got together and said, “well, what would it look like to have a quantitative literacy requirement in the college and maybe more generally in the university, and how would we build it?” And I was involved in that process and then Richard, why don’t you pick up how you got involved?

Campbell: So, I got involved as the “canary in the coal mine”. So, they felt like they needed a Humanities person to sort of test the waters and make sure we were on the right track, and I got to meet a lot of really interesting people who were not in my field, and I think that’s been one of the greatest pleasures of Stats & Stories, is the inter-disciplinary nature of it.

Bailer: Well, then we started though with the – as part of that effort, you and I were challenged to produce a course that would be a quantitative literacy kind of class for our Humanities audience. And that lead to an honors course that we taught called News & Numbers. And that was inspired by Victor Kohn’s book and also Joel best stat spotting book were two of the fundamental references, and that was a lot of fun!

Campbell: And I think that was ten years ago, right?

Bailer: Oh my.

Campbell: And we did that course… and I remember a couple things too because we made it about-uh we had students bring in a lot of data and charts and graphs from newspapers. And we would usually start a class by talking about those and John would usually do a critique and I remember my first experience sitting in that class with this internationally known statistician as my teaching partner thinking “what am I doing in here? I don’t know anything about statistics, I’m scared to death!”. So, John goes up to the board, and this was in like the first 5 or 10 minutes and he puts up a chart or graph, I can’t remember what it was, and says, “Okay class, what’s the story here?” and I immediately felt comfortable. He was going to talk about this graph as something where you should be able to find a story. And I think from that moment on I was, not always easy for me in that class, but I felt very comfortable. I think very early on with John.

Pennington: So, how did this become a podcast?

Bailer: Wow, that’s a- that’s sort of a fast forward in time. So one of the things I’ve learned a lot from Richard in the context of this, and thinking about how do we connect to a broader audience and the stories that we tell and the analysis that we do, but we quickly realized it was pretty tough to replicate the small size class time and time again., especially with two people that had some other administrative responsibilities.

Campbell: Yeah, we are both Department Chairs, and it was hard to pull it off the first time, I think we probably both did it as a course overload. We were busy, but it was certainly one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had at Miami.

Bailer: Oh, me too. Me too, but the idea of scale is something we thought about, and how we generalize it, and at that time the U.N. was going to have the world statistics day. And it was 20-10 20-10. Which was the twentieth day of October in 2010. And that was coming off the 175th anniversary of the American Statistical Association was coming up. I’d been on – I was swerving on the board of the American Statistical Association at that time…

Campbell: I like how John works numbers around into the conversation whenever he can.

Bailer: Well, we sort of are obligated, aren’t we Richard? To do that? And I think that we said, “well, what’s the model for doing this on a larger scale?” And, the idea of trying to do a podcast was what emerged.

Campbell: And this was John’s idea, he came to me. We’ve got the facilities to do this in the Media, Journalism and Film program, and I thought it was a great idea. Again, I felt intimidated but thought I would learn a lot. And that actually happened.

Bailer: Yeah, and it was- we ended up having a lot of support. I mean having a radio station a former public radio station here on campus ended up meaning that we had this great facility we also had engineers that could work with us, and we had technical staff. You know so we should give a shout out to all of those people.

Campbell: Ringo Jones, Bob Long, was our Moderator.

Bailer: Paul Ford was involved in some of the IT part, Guy Moore helped us gear up for the podcast presence. Larry Downs also helped us with some of the initial setup. So, we had just a very generous collection of colleagues that helped it get rolling. And we said “Okay, where do we start?” And we invited a colleague from the census Tommy Wright to come to campus and visit us at campus and sit down in the studio with us.

Pennington: So, this has been going on for six years now, what do you think that you have learned the most through doing this?

Bailer: Well again, I would talk about the variety of guests we’ve had from data journalists to scientists to internationally known statisticians. I find, first of all- I’ve been amazed at how articulate about talking about what they do, and I think it’s made the mission of Stats & Stories a little easier because what we’re trying to is have people that work with numbers and data come and explain their research, how data works, how statistics work, and I think by and large they’ve just done a great job of doing this, and I thought my role on the show was going to be “Hey! Speak English!”. And I’ve had to do that probably, never, on this show. I mean we have asked people to explain themselves, sometimes, and they’ve done a great job at it.

Campbell: I’ve been impressed at how generous people are with their time. I mean the number of times that we’ve been told “no” is very small.

Bailer: You know even with people that we’ve contacted, just cold contacts- you know, folks are interested in telling their story.

Campbell: From all over the world too. So that’s been a joy of this show to have guests that are in different countries on the other side of the world.

Bailer: So, as part of this origins story, Rosemary, we should talk about how you got-

Pennington: How I got hoodwinked into it?

Bailer: How you got suckered in to doing this. So, what was it that threw you into this?

Pennington: Uh, Richard, look so I’m a former Public Radio producer and host, and have been doing that since I was 19, and was also a Science Medical Reporter at one point, doing mixed methods of my own research. And I think Richard knew all of that and when Bob was retiring approached me and said “hey, we do this podcast, would you be interested? We have someone else on faculty who could also moderate and you guys could switch out”, and I’m like “sure, if it’s not me doing it by myself all of the time”. And now, here we are. I don’t know when this was when this started, a couple of years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been great for me, because I miss doing journalism, but I still think of myself as a journalist first, even though I’ve been an academic since 2007, but here’s something nice about sitting down and talking to someone, because that was my favorite part of being a journalist- was actually talking to people and hearing their stories. And so being able to pick the brains of all of these interesting people and find out how they got interested in what they do and how they do what they do wand why they think it’s important has been really fun.

Bailer: What’s been the most surprising thing in your experience with Stats & Stories?

Pennington: I don’t know I was trying to think about this this morning and I don’t know if its anything has been super surprising just because I feel like I have a fairly basic, you know… I think for me the surprising thing is that I understand more than I thought I would. I took stats as an undergrad at Ohio University and I had to take Statistics when I was in graduate school and had to learn pi square and secondary analysis by hand, and I understand stats, but some of the conversations we’ve had and like I understand things better than I thought I did which is kind of, you know, nice. Its like I’m more informed than I thought coming into this.

Bailer: Well, you know I was worried when Bob was leaving as a moderator, but he did such a great job, I mean it’s been a real treat to have you provide that steady hand at the tiller, as we move forward.

Campbell: And it’s been nice, I feel like it takes two journalists to equal one statistician.

Bailer: Oh, come on.

Campbell: So, I always feel between Rosemary and I, we can handle John.

Pennington: Well, I think that kind of speaks to the one of the missions of this program, right? Is to make this accessible and I think there is this stereotype that journalists don’t like numbers or are scared of numbers. And I think its partly sort of the way journalists are often educated, because again in grad and undergrad I took a logical reasoning class and a statistics class and those were my math classes as an undergrad. And then I didn’t take another math class until I went to grad school and I had to take stats and I was like “Oh god, I’ going to die”. But it’s not that it’s not understandable, I think it’s sort of the way that we frame this as a profession where people are scared of numbers run to, and people sort of hold on to that. But I think one of the nice things has been being able to break down some of this really complicated information. That way someone who is coming to it as a novice or without much background information can kind of understand even the sort of more difficult to follow stuff.

Bailer: You know I think there’s a complimentary point to that too, and that is that some people go into the stats side and the more mathematical science side because of not wanting to write. Not wanting that type of component, or not feeling like they’re very good at it. And I find that it’s breaking down those walls in both directions. It’s something that’s an important goal for us.

Campbell: One of the things that Rosemary alluded to was, I’ve come to appreciate – I always thought of journalists and myself as a generalist; as someone who needs to know a lot about a lot of different things and I’ve come to appreciate statisticians as generalist as well, and there aren’t very many, and I think we need more of those types in academia so we can talk across disciplinary boundaries. Everybody talks about “we should do more interdisciplinary stuff”, but the truth is a lot of times it’s hard to break those boundaries down. But I think statisticians and journalists and journalism professors are folks that try to do that, and I think that s been one of the great joys of the show is going across different kind of boundaries and having these wonderful conversations with really smart people about what it is they do and about the importance of understanding numbers and making sure journalists tell those stories in the best way they can.

Bailer: I’ve been impressed at just the quantitative sophistication of some of the data journalism stories that we’ve seen. I think that the world is changing in terms of how stories are built and how stories are reported, and the tools for visualizing the complexity of the analyses that are done that lead to these stories, has just quickly evolved and become more complicated. And it’s a real challenge to try to convey that to a general audience but it seems that journalists are really embracing that now.

Pennington: John, what’s it been like for you to have to sit behind a microphone and do this?

Bailer: Weird. You know I- this is among the many things in life you don’t anticipate ever doing- this is up there. You know, I didn’t really think that id ever have strong collaboration with journalism and its one of the joys of teaching a class with the journalists and then the experience of working very closely with journalists has been a lot of fun. The experience of doing this, I find that it’s pretty sobering to listen to yourself recorded- as many of us think about as kids, and as we get older… But then to do it when you’re talking to people and trying to think on your feet as you’re talking to someone about work that they’ve done, there’s a lot of homework to get ready, there’s also a lot of nimbleness in trying to respond as you’re trying to talk to someone and I find that’s- I think I’m getting better I hope, but I know I’m not I haven’t converged to great or good even perhaps. It’s been a lot of fun but a challenge.

Pennington: You’re listening to Stats & Stories and today we’re celebrating our 100th episode. As I said earlier our producer Charles Blades had asked you all for some questions and he has another one I think for us.

Charles: Yes, uh, James Coat asks who is your guys’ dream guest for the show and why?

Bailer: Oh boy!

Pennington: John’s probably got a whole bag full!

Bailer: You know, we’ve had just some wonderful guests on here. I’ve been- I mean, there’ve been a number of people who’s work I followed for years in my career and I’ve been able to talk to them on the show so that’s been great. You know so Charles is it limited the people that have to be alive or can I go back in time and win, you know-

Pennington: Alive, John. They have to be able to be asked on the show.

Campbell: Yeah, we want to be able to get them as guests, John.

Bailer: I thought that I could you know, that sort of opened up the pool a little bit to think about this. I’ve really liked the works that Hans Roslin has done, now deceased, but I know we’re not going to get a medium here, we’re not going to try to get this beyond the grave. But he’s the co-author of a book, Factfulness, with his kids and I think that I would love to talk to one or both of them as part of an episode. I think that’s been a very impactful book, it’s one of those books that I think Bill Gates- although he’d be a great guest as well, to talk about some of the work that they’re doing with development. So those are a couple that come to mind for me.

Campbell: We tried early on, we talked about Nate Silver at 538 and that was- and then he got really well known and was doing a lot of stuff, so that became kind of impossible, although we’ve had a lot of people from 538 as guests on this show over time. But particularly I think with this new, this next political season coming up I would be interested in more statisticians and journalists talking about the use of numbers in poling and that kind of thing is interesting to me.

Pennington: I have two. Danika McKellar, because I love the book she wrote and was also a huge Wonder Years fan and wanted to be Wendy when I was a child. I think she’s done a lot to sort of make math and statistics accessible to especially girls. Because I was certainly hone of those girls who going through school was made to feel like math was something I could do. And I actually really once again, at graduate stats class, I’m like “I really enjoy math, I wish someone had helped me understand that much earlier”, because my dream job when I was a child was to be an astronomer. Which brings me to the person who is my dream guest, which is Brian Cox. He is a British physicist who teaches at the University of Manchester, hosted the Wonders of the Solar System and Universe on BBC, hosts a podcast called The Infinite Monkey Cage with Robert and is just- he was in a couple of pop bands in the 90s too, Dare and Dream, he plays keyboard, and he just presents really incredibly complicated material in a very thoughtful and a very accessible way. And I think for me what I always appreciate is that Carl Sagan-esque ability to translate particularly science, because I was obsessed and am still obsessed with science, to a broad audience. And he just seems very personable and is also very famous and very busy so I’m sure he’s never going to be on this podcast but that’s sort of my dream…

Campbell: Charles, let’s get this guy!

Pennington: Work on it Charles!

Bailer: I’d like to get Joel Best on. We’ve had Joel visit, and he’s wrote the book Stat spotting which is the field guide, the dubious data and Richard and I have used that book as part of the news and numbers class and I’ve really appreciated the work that he’s done. There are some other folks, maybe through the National Numeracy Network, or some other connections that I think would be fun, I would like to maybe find one of Victor Kohn’s relatives or collaborators or sort of someone who was really a leader in the early data journalism thinking and ideas. We’ve already had some folks who are at the forefront of that work like Mark Hanson who’s done work at Columbia School of Journalism, and some of the data stuff that Journalism, and doing some of the stories based on analyses that he’s done, it’s really been remarkable. Are the topics that we haven’t had that you all are thinking about?

Pennington: I would like harder, like astronomy, physics kind of stuff, and that’s because I’m a nerd. It basically gives me- that’s what I love. That’s the beautiful thing about journalism, right? Is that it gives you access to people’s brains, and especially on this program to be able to talk to people doing interesting research in those fields. For me it just has always been really fascinating just to talk to them about the work they’re doing, it’s the one thing I miss about being a science reporter at UAB Sarah Parcack is archaeologist who uses geospatial mapping to examine ancient sites. And I interviewed her- this is one of the last pieces I did for WBH in Birmingham Alabama about the way that she was using this technology to help the School of Public Health. And so it was really interesting to talk to her about how that work had developed from being for her this sort of archaeological tool to something that she was using with her public health partners, and her grandfather had at one point had done survey photography from planes, like in the early 1900s. it was a really beautiful story because I could bring it full circle, but stuff like that. It was just a random conversation we had had in passing that turned into a longer piece and I just love that kind of stuff.

Campbell: For me it’s probably something that is connected to my own interests and work which is the tremendous loss of journalists over the last 15 years. We’ve gone from 55,000 reporters working for daily newspapers to less than 28,000. So, this has created a lot of what we are calling news deserts. And I think one of our goals is to have the folks at North Carolina who did the study that found there are 1300 news deserts in the United States. These are communities with little or no journalistic coverage. And in a country where the only organization or institution that’s mentioned in the constitution is the press, our founders clearly believed that for democracies to be healthy we needed to have strong journalism, and this is something that I’m worried about., especially in rural communities and in urban areas where there is a lot of stories that aren’t being told.

Pennington: I was going to say, this sort of reminds me of another point. Because we often ask our guests what sort of frustrates them in relation to statistical information and I think that the shrinking newsroom is related to an issue of science reporting that’s not always- or statistical reporting that’s not always as thorough as it could be and I- since I have the microphone right now, you know it’s never criticism of journalists themselves, but sort of the practices of a newsroom where you’re chasing to fill a hole or again, a broadcaster by training, you’ve got thirty seconds you have to fill a story with you know? And the constraints of the newsroom don’t always allow for the depth that I think we would like to see in some of the stuff that gets covered. Certainly, I don’t like talking to reporters now on the other side of the spectrum, I hate it! I hate it! But again, it’s not necessarily their fault it’s just the nature of the newsroom, fewer resources, less time means that they don’t always have the time to do the research we’d like them to do and I think -this is for stats this is for politics, this is for anything is that the issue of news deserts is important not only for those rural communities but also for the fact that those shrinking newsrooms makes the coverage of everything including statistical information or public health or science much more complicated to do well, I think.

Bailer: I think sort of related to that is the idea to just trust in source. The trust in news, and all the concerns that have emerged and discussions of disinformation or fake news and what that might be, I know the American Statistical Association has a working group on that, where we have statisticians and computer scientists that are working on it as well as people that are science journalists that area part of that process. But that investigation is something that I worry a lot about. I worry about how do we help us all be prepared to receive and critically consume information, and maybe avoid fooling ourselves by reinforcing our prior beliefs in how we source the information we get.

Campbell: So, I think Stats & Stories has- I think one of our obligations has become bringing folks on the podcast that can speak to the importance of science, the importance of data, the importance of evidence in a time where evidence is being criticized and critiqued, it’s sometimes its sort of everybody’s opinion is the equal and I think we like to argue that if you have an opinion it’s better if you have evidence behind that opinion.

Pennington: Yeah, because I mean because researchers face both that same skepticism. The public tends to distrust journalists. I think when you look – although I think the last rankings I saw were ranking a little higher…

Campbell: It’s going up, yes.

Pennington: It’s going up slowly but surely. But for a very long time it was like politicians, lawyers and journalists were all bundled together. But I do think the response to recent political events and the fake news stuff has made people value quality journalism. But it’s still this thing where you’re faced with skepticism. Researchers come to an audience with evidence and journalists come to an audience with evidence and if that evidence doesn’t confirm what you believe you don’t want to believe it and in this hyper mediated space you don’t have to. You can find someone else to prop up your beliefs, or say “no, no, no, vaccines DO cause Autism”, or “this person DID do this thing or said this thing” even though all of the evidence would suggest otherwise. So, it is a really complicated and difficult time to be doing this work.

Bailer: So, what do you two thinks will happen for the next episodes of Stats & Stories. If we happen to be sitting here for episode 200, now see here I am engaging in the dangers of extrapolation… but you know if you were thinking about what kind of challenges, what types of tasks or should we engage with as we move forward?

Campbell: Well, my own view is, one of the things that we know that’s happening with Stats and Stories is classrooms are starting to listen, we get a lot of compliments from teachers about this as an introduction to thinking about statistics and numbers and science. I like that. I think that we certainly feel like we have an educational mission to advance that and I’d like to keep doing it until John runs out of guest ideas.

Pennington: I think for me getting it more broadly in front of a journalistic audience, I think we’ve been talking about that for a while, how to do that, and journalists are busy and trying to get them to carve out more time to do something like listen to a podcast is difficult when there are so many other podcasts to listen to. But I would like to do more work to try to get this in front of SPJ or TNDA or online news association, all these spaces where we could reach a broader journalistic audience. And what about you John?

Bailer: I think you hit two topics that are near and dear to my heart as well. I mean I look at the possible partnerships with groups that are preparing materials for teachers to use in their classrooms. The idea of lesson plans maybe being paired with Stats & Stories to help with encouraging students to start exploring on their own, I hope that we’ll be able to make more progress there. I know that colleagues like Dennis Pearl and folks at Cause are interested in this, so perhaps we’ll see that emerge and see that develop as time moves on. but this has been a real treat. I think that I’ve felt blessed and fortunate to work with outstanding colleagues and to have the chance to talk to folks that are doing really cool stuff all around the world.

Campbell: And I feel that same way John.

Pennington: Well, that is it for our 100th episode. Stats & Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s Departments of Statistics, and Media, Journalism and Film, and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter or iTunes. If you’d like to share your thoughts on the program send your email to statsandstories@miamioh.edu and check us out at statsandstories.net and be sure to listen for future editions of Stats & Stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.