Oct 2, 2013

The XL-Files: Ig Nobel and 24/7


Contributing Editor Xiao-Li Meng writes:

Life sometimes takes funny turns. Literally. The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is an annual event organized by the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), which is devoted to “research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK” (www.improbable.com). Since I love laughing and thinking, not necessarily in that order, I have wanted for years to attend the event. Ironically I only found time this year, when my schedule is not even under my control. Finding a ticket within two days of the event, however, turned out to be harder. Just as I was about to give up, the editor of AIR, who learned that I was looking for a ticket, made me an offer that was just too good to be true. There was a 24/7 lecturer who dropped out at the last minute for health reasons. If I’d be willing to replace him, I’d have a VIP seat, that is, on stage!

The official rule of 24/7 lectures is to have each speaker explain her or his subject twice: “first a complete technical description in 24 seconds, and then a clear summary that anyone can understand, in seven words.” However, an informal (and real) definition followed quickly: “to load your 24 second portion with the densest jargon you can think of, so that it’s totally incomprehensible to the lay public. Then the seven-word summary should make the audience laugh, and think. A biologist once said, to describe biology, ‘If it can get infected, it’s biology.’”

To explain Statistics clearly in 24 seconds would be a daunting task, but to make it incomprehensible is trivial. So I accepted the offer right away. Inspired by the biologist, the seven words also came rather easily: “If you are unsure, consult a statistician.”

Of course there is no free lunch, or in this case, free ticket. I needed to make the audience laugh before making them think! Unsure if loading incomprehensible statistical jargon could induce laughter from the audience, I followed my own advice and consulted a statistician I had known since birth. His advice was loud and clear—indeed I heard his voice non-stop over the next 24 hours. Embed jargon into Jack-Handey style deep thoughts. Make it rhyme, if you want it to shine. Go for pun, if you want fun.

A poem then flowed out rather smoothly. My assistant loved it. Ego boosted, I went further, and made the seven words almightier. (Though I still love the original seven.)
Fun needs to be shared, especially silly fun. A midnight spam about my upcoming adventure then went out (without my 24/7 lecture text) to a semi-random sample of colleagues and friends who I believe would enjoy a few laughs and could provide some moral support. The responses indicated that the 24/7 format aroused quite a bit of interest. The 24/7 text below is from an eminent statistician, who was most wide-ranging. Indeed, if I could ignore my statistician’s advice, I would have adopted this:

“24 Seconds: Numbers, Data, Experiments, Analysis, Graphs, Charts, Decisions, Conclu-sions. Models, Predictions, Outliers, Backbone of Science. Hardest Subject in college, for most. Gave us “Green Revolution in Agriculture,” “Proved that Smoking Causes Cancer,” Cures Childhood Leukemia,” “Zero-Defect Consumer Products,” Google Search, Predictive Spelling, Find Oil, Cell Phone Receivers, DNA Gene Finders. 7 Words: Numbers Data Experiments Randomness Odds Analysis … Statistics.”

This and other responses, however, reminded me that there would be expectations of my 24/7 lecture beyond just making the audience laugh and think. I therefore replaced a self-deprecating line [“Binomial, Multinomial, and Multivariate Normal/who said I am nerdy and abnormal”] by something a bit more positive. However, I was not prepared to drop all the silliness, given the nature of the event. If you don’t have time to laugh for about 90 minutes (http://www.improbable.com/ig/2013/), here is my 24 seconds of (Ig) fame:

Z-test, t-test, chi-squared test,
I can help you to face any test;
Bayes, Frequentist, Fiducial
Let me make you feel influential.
Regression, Correlation, Causation,
What else can generate more passion?
Skewness, Kurtosis, Heteroscedasticity
Boy, do I feel sexy?

Not unexpectedly, not everyone shared my sense of humor. A hate-hate-hate mail came in, from a friend who preferred to remain anonymous but gave me the permission to describe him as “a curmudgeonly blogger who some say is the second funniest person to join the Harvard statistics department in 1986.” Clearly he had a strong reaction (one with which my serious side completely agrees!):

“Don’t get mad, but… I hate hate hate that you wasted three of your 24 words on “Z-test, t-test, chi-squared test” and three more on “Skewness, Kurtosis, Heteroscedasticity.” None of these seem essential to statistics, but they strike me as the kind of technical things that people think statistics is about!”

At least he was silent on my seven words on Statistics: The only crystal ball approved by God.

What would yours be?

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4 Comments

  • This is a really enlightening blog. As a student who has learnt statistics for 7 years, I have never thought hard about what statistics is. As I read throught the first 24 seconds speech in this blog, some of the applications appeared are sill unfamiliar to me. I feel I need to catch up with those. I also admire Professor Meng’s wisdom and humor.

    Pondering for a while, I would describe statistics using the following words:
    sampling, corelation, distribution (summerize important features of data), linear regression, logistic regression, Poisson regression (form the corner stone of statistical models),
    moments, likelihood, least squares (help us the estimate the models),
    AIC/BIC, lasso, chi-square test (tell us how to tailor the model),
    Monte Carlo, EM, Robbins-Monro (are powerfull tools for computing)
    gambling, agriculture, demography, epidemiology (where statistics is used in the past)
    finance, enviromental sciences, networks, genetics (where statistics is directed to)

    And here comes my seven words:
    God encrypts the numbers, we decipher them.

    • “God encrypts the numbers, we decipher them.” — beautiful! Thank you, Xuan! XL

  • [...] me some unusually exciting, and challenging, speaking opportunities. The last XL-Files documented my 24 second Ig Nobel fame, which came with the grand challenge of explaining statistics clearly to a lay audience in seven [...]

  • [...] this was not inspired by my recent Ig Nobel experience. The idea has been around for a long time but it particularly inspired me when [...]

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