Lies, damned lies and statistics? A statistician responds

Dr Norma Bargary of the University of Limerick on the difference between good and bad statistics

You are a statistician.

“Yes, my research looks at data – how to collect it, how to analyse and interpret it and then make sense of it and present it.”

What about that old description of “lies, damned lies and statistics”?

“Statistics can be used in lots of different ways, and this is why I think we need to be more aware of them. They are all around us, and understanding more about how statistics work can help you get a sense of what’s really being stated and whether to have confidence in it.”

Can you give us examples?

“In health news, you might see that something raises the risk of cancer by 50 per cent – that might sound like a lot, but what was the initial risk? If it was very small, then the increase in risk isn’t that much.

Or in ads you might see or hear statements like ‘76 per cent of women agree that their hair condition improved’. But you have to think about how many women they surveyed, what did they ask them and why were those women selected? Those parameters can make a big difference to the confidence you would have in the statistic.”


So what research do you do?

“I am a researcher at the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry (Macsi) in UL and I am interested in how to collect and analyse data measured over time.

“That might be data collected by sensors on a machine or a person gathering huge amounts of information, or measurements of how a living system changes. I look at the best ways to make sense of that information, to spot patterns and answer questions.”

What kinds of questions do you answer?

“My work has fed into analysis of how cancer cells grow, how clinicians can best support and educate people with diabetes, how rugby players perform during training, what treatments work best for injuries, why elite Irish dancers get injured, and even what makes someone a good rower. I also work with companies to analyse and improve their manufacturing processes, so they become more efficient.”

Were you always interested in maths?

“There was no eureka moment, but when we would get our school books in summer before the school year started, I would work through the maths problems on my own because I liked that sense of achievement of figuring things out. I started studying physiotherapy in college because I loved sport, but I switched to mathematical sciences at UL. Then I went on to do a PhD in statistics there, too.”

What would you be if you were not a statistician?

“I would probably be a maths teacher. I lecture to undergraduates at the moment in in the university, and it is really rewarding to see when they get a concept and they see the world differently as a result.”

What do you wish more people knew about maths and statistics?

“I think a lot of maths and statistics is hidden away but once you go looking for them they are everywhere, and they help us to understand so much about the world. They help us understand and find new ways to treat diseases, develop new products and new technology and help us plan for the future.”