In statistics, abstract math meets real life. To find meaning in unruly sets of raw numbers, statisticians like Donald Richards first look for associations: statistical links between, say, smoking and lung cancer, or the closing values of the New York Stock Exchange one day and the Tokyo exchange the next. Further study can then probe whether one phenomenon causes the other, or if both have common causes.
“Statistics is a way of analyzing data and discovering the inner hidden secrets being concealed by the data,” Richards said over Skype from his home in Pennsylvania in January. “Can we find patterns that tell us that climate change is underway? Can we find patterns that suggest that bitcoin has topped out? That’s what we’re constantly searching for—patterns.”
The patterns can be subtle. However, the search for them is not esoteric, in his view, but rather “the only thing that anybody with brains should be doing with their life.”
In the lilt of his native Jamaica, Richards, 63, describes statisticians as innovators, ever in search of new mathematical tools for finding hidden associations between phenomena, and thus furthering the ancient quest to link causes and effects. How, for example, did people first figure out what they could eat? “In Jamaica, there’s a tree called the ackee tree,” he said. “When the ackee fruit is not ripe, it’s highly poisonous, but [as a deadly search for correlations must have revealed] when it’s ripe, if cleaned properly it can be cooked and eaten.”