July 25, 2014, BY Heather Johns

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Welcome to "Cool Classes," a regular feature that highlights the interesting, intriguing and unexpected in Bucknell University's course catalog.

What class? RESC 098 24: Say It With Statistics

Who teaches it? Professor Pamela Gorkin, mathematics

"Statistics can be applied to everything: It is essential to mathematics, biology, economics, physics and engineering, of course, but art historians, sociologists, psychologists, journalists and lawyers can also use statistics in a meaningful way. Statistics can help you make a purchase, pick an athlete for a team, choose a hotel or determine which medical procedure is best for you. But as use of statistics increases, so does the potential for abuse. We don't want to abuse statistics. It's not nice. If this class teaches students one thing, I hope it's this: Check your statistics — and everyone else's. 

"There are a lot of resources my students read with a critical eye, like The New York Times' Room for Debate and the FiveThirtyEight blog. We also do experiments. Soc-Tech's theme this year is food waste, so we will do some statistical experiments with food.

"When we are presented with data, we need to ask the right questions. If we don't, the consequences can be devastating. Case in point: In 'People v. Collins,' witnesses of a robbery said the perpetrators were an interracial couple; the male had a beard and moustache, and the female had blonde hair and a ponytail. They escaped in a yellow car. A couple, Richard and Janet Collins, were a match on each detail. Were they guilty?  Multiplying (possible) probabilities of each of the characteristics, the prosecutor found that there was less than one in 12 million chance that a couple would match this description. Therefore, he argued, the Collins must have committed the crime.

"The verdict? Guilty. This was later overturned, primarily on the grounds of statistical abuse.

"The moral? As the court decision stated, 'Mathematics, a veritable sorcerer in our computerized society, while assisting the trier of fact in the search for truth, must not cast a spell over him.'

"I consider my class a success if, when a student reads that a recent poll named Obama as the worst president since World War II, the first thing they do is look for the poll. The second thing they do is look through the poll carefully. And the third thing they do is to use statistical arguments to criticize or defend the results."

See what else is being offered by the Department of Mathematics.

Are we missing out on a cool class? Send your suggestions to heather.johns@bucknell.edu.