Statistics (“Names and Numbers”)

“Statistics in college would have been a whole lot more interesting if they were talking about horses,” was one of the first comments I received about this blog. I have been thinking about this statement for about a week now and have decided that it deserves a post of its own.

Statistics can be a lot of fun, but only if you are really interested in the results. Unfortunately, the types of issues addressed by most statistics are not very interesting to very many people. Take the recent U.S. Census, for example. It generates a ton of statistics, all of which are necessary and do serve some purpose but which are not very interesting to most people (except maybe politicians who might have something to gain or lose due to the results of that census).

I recently heard on the radio, “Wallace Stevens, considered by some to be the greatest American poet of the 20th century.” Stevens was an actuary. He worked for a life insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. In case you are not familiar with the term, an actuary is “a person who computes premium rates, dividends, risks, etc., according to probabilities based on statistical records.” Again, a necessary job which does serve some purpose but not one which many people at all would find very interesting.

(As a total digression, I do not agree with the assessment by some that Stevens was the greatest American poet of the 20th century. I would split my ballot on that score and vote for Robert Frost for the first half of the century and Robert Allen Zimmerman for the second half of the century.)

I was an aficionado of horse racing growing up (starting about age nine), and the study of statistics was an extension of that fascination. I majored in English at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (honors degree, thesis on James T. Farrell), but I also took two semesters of statistics there (as well as one semester in high school).

A buddy of mine had a small wager with me (a 12-pack of favorite beverage) on the final exam in that second statistics course in college. We both got A’s on that final. After the class we approached the professor together and explained our problem. We had a small wager and needed to decide a winner. The 12-pack was awarded to me. My buddy had made a rounding error on his final, enough to make the difference, declared the professor.

I mentioned Preston Madden in one of my earlier posts. He told me some stories about his collegiate days at the University of Kentucky in the late 1950s. PM took a course in genetics at UK from Dewey G. Steele (more about him later). All of the students in that class were horse people, PM told me. After the first few weeks of a basic introduction to genetics, most of the class discussion used Thoroughbred pedigrees as examples.

“And how often did you cut that class?” I asked PM.

“That was the one class at UK I NEVER cut,” he replied.

So in a roundabout way, we have finally arrived at an example of statistics being much more interesting back in college. It does happen, just not very often. Unfortunately, I was born too late (1955) to have benefited from the tutelage of Dewey G. Steele.

That name might be familiar to you for another reason. I mentioned him about a year ago in my series on the Rasmussen Factor and quoted him from “Racehorse Breeding Theories,” page 315: “Evidence from these studies indicates that pedigrees should be judged primarily upon the basis of the first and second generations and that ancestors beyond the third generation may for all practical purposes be ignored.”

I love that quote. Just had to reiterate it. Dewey G. Steele was a geneticist with some common sense, and genetics and statistics are peanut butter and jelly.

Alas, I fear that geneticists today have not particularly helped to edify the general public as to the actual relationship between Thoroughbred pedigrees and performance. If anything, I fear that they have contributed to the “mystification” of that relationship. But I really do not want to go there. At least not right now in this particular post. Maybe sometime later if somebody asks me pretty please.

Yes, statistics can be fun and interesting, but it does not happen very often. Sometimes statistics interest people greatly but bewilder them at the same time (witness the recent studies on fatal equine injuries and/or presumed breakdowns; not gonna comment on THAT can of worms). I hope to make the statistics in this blog as interesting as possible to as many people as possible (and fun too), but I am not by nature an optimist.


PS This particular post has been more autobiographical than most, with many more details to who exactly (or even approximately) I am. In that spirit I add the following:

“Names and Numbers”

Names and numbers, numbers and names

I’m trying to build a scaffold that frames

This scientific inquiry into some shape

To silence that voice screaming for escape

Names and numbers, page after page

Seem to be an antidote for all of my rage

Compiling them seems to keep me amused

Better anyway than neglected or abused

Names and numbers; I have a purpose in mind

Even “chiefs of the breed”  walk a dark road blind

We mortals are the same come the final curlew call

We aspire to the stars and then to dungeons fall

About the best you can do is to find some place

A local habitation from which to “influence” this race

This theme I’ll expound till I’m dragged off this stage

As incomprehensible to most as a houyhnhnm in a cage.

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4 Responses to Statistics (“Names and Numbers”)

  1. fmitchell07 says:

    here’s a cheer to houyhnhnms:

    free to race, free to roam
    free to rage against the dying of the light
    free to gallop through the foam
    free to follow the distant dazzling sight

    cheers, all.

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