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Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter on how to learn from data: The art of statistics

Sir David Spiegelhalter delivers the closing keynote for Discovery Online on "The Art of Statistics."Sir David Spiegelhalter delivers the closing keynote for Discovery Online on "The Art of Statistics."Discovery Online’s closing plenary speaker, David Spiegelhalter, OBE, has many accolades, most notably Chair of the Winton Center for Risk & Evidence Communication, Centre for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and past president of the Royal Statistical Society. But he has also featured in some noteworthy documentaries for the BBC, is the reigning World Champion of Loop, and is host of the new podcast, Risky Talk, which debuted in March 2020.

I had the honor of interviewing him for Analytically Speaking in 2019 after reading his most recent book, The Art of Statistics:  Learning from Data, which I thoroughly enjoyed. He had so many interesting things to share, one of which was rather surprising — his confession that the book is a textbook in disguise! He touched on this in his plenary for Discovery Online, saying that modern statistical courses should be motivated by “problem-solving, visual exploration of data, Bayesian methods” and more. In the introduction of The Art of Statistics, David writes, “improving data literacy means changing the way statistics is taught.” We are happy change is afoot on this front!

David asks, “Are you a Data Detective?” We love that as SAS co-founder and JMP chief architect, John Sall often advocates being a data detective (to explore and find things out) versus acting as a lawyer (to prove or persuade).

A slide from David Spiegelhalter's keynote talk at Discovery Online.A slide from David Spiegelhalter's keynote talk at Discovery Online.


David drew on many examples in his most recent book, one of which was the suspicious number of Dr. Harold Shipman’s patients’ deaths. This is how his book starts, and for me, it was a bone-chilling page-turner. What brilliant sleuthing to expose this mass murderer! 

David points out that we often use numbers to persuade rather than inform. He says the best ways to communicate risks are by means of absolute risks and expected frequencies with carefully chosen graphics, as well as careful consideration about wording in press releases and media headlines. 

I found that excellent advice as he concluded his talk with this guidance from philosopher Nora O’Neill:

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There are many more highlights worth sharing. David is so eloquent and engaging. I encourage you to watch the recording of his talk, along with other Discovery Summit talks on the JMP Community. And I highly recommend his book — if you registered for Discovery Summit Munich, you will be receiving it as part of the care package we are sending. You will surely enjoy reading it.

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When will the recording be made available?