Dinosaurs, chaos and statistics (oh, my!)

“They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That's been cherished scientific belief since Newton.”

“And?”

“Chaos theory throws it right out the window.”

- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos lately.

Perhaps it’s because I have two young sons (ages 4 and 7) who thwart my every attempt to predict what they’ll do next. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of my chosen profession. After all, statistics as a discipline exists because of the variability inherent in all things and our natural desire to identify the order in the chaos. Or maybe it has to do with my recent discovery of this song, which features Jeff Goldblum’s chaotician, Dr. Ian Malcolm, from the movie Jurassic Park.

Yeah, it’s definitely that last one.

Dr. Malcolm studies chaos theory (Nonlinear equations? Strange attractions?) and uses his knowledge of the unpredictability of complex systems to try and convince John Hammond not to open Jurassic Park due to the potential danger. Sure enough, his prediction comes true (ironic?), and the all-female dino population takes advantage of the frog DNA used to complete their genetic code to swap genders in order to mate and lay eggs because “life finds a way.”

(And increasingly terrible sequels need new dinosaurs… no one could have predicted that. Ahem.)

However, you don’t need to be a student of chaos theory to appreciate the important role statistics plays in our everyday lives, which was evident last year through the International Year of Statistics -- and this year, as we celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the American Statistical Association.

The ASA was originally founded in 1839 as the American Statistical Society. It is a little known fact (read: fabrication) that later that same year, a puckish Englishman named Sir William A. Cronym developed a means to abbreviate text by using the first letter of each word in a phrase to form a new word. The development of these “acronyms” (as they came to be known) revolutionized how people communicated with one another, particularly over the telegraph, a fledgling technology at the time. These acronyms necessitated a name-change of the recently-founded American Statistical Society to the American Statistical Association in 1840. Better to change the name the organization then be known as that “gaggle of American derrières.”

Today, the ASA is the second oldest continuously operating professional association in the United States, second only to the American Philosophical Society founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin. Its members serve in industry, government and academia in more than 90 countries. With close to 18,000 members, the ASA is the largest professional statistics organization in the world.

So, happy birthday, ASA! I predict another 175 years of statistical leadership and excellence. That is, of course, until someone clones a bunch of dinosaurs… then, well, we’ll just see what happens.

tags: American Statistical Association, Statistics

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