I love statistics. And in this era of big data, as well as infinitesimally small data, that is probably a worthwhile personality trait. I find them interesting, useful and intriguing, at the same time as being amusing, unhelpful, misguided and sometimes outright absurd. My favourite set of statistics these holidays were provided by a maths teacher and Cambridge PhD student, who (according to The Times) has turned his appearances on University Challenge into a burgeoning TV career, a man by the name of Bobby Seagull. Bobby apparently used his enormous mathematical brain to apply a complex equation to the subject of his own love life. The Times reports that “over several pages in his new book, he explains how he set the parameters and crunched the numbers to reach the conclusion that there are 73 women in the whole world whom he might successfully go out with”. Bobby was apparently “gratified that this was a prime number, but less enthusiastic about his own computation that we are as a species 14 times more likely to find an alien civilisation than he is to locate even one of these 73 women”. What a wonderful example that was of how brilliantly intriguing and how downright absurd statistics can be. On the one hand, Bobby has defined his ideal woman, one apparently who (amongst other things) likes to watch programmes as diverse as Love Island, University Challenge and Bake Off, while also being able to contribute to his daily quest to complete the Times2 quiz. He has then set these alongside his other parameters, to build up a mathematical proposition which shows the likelihood of all these things coming together; giving an answer both interesting (arguably) and amusing (certainly), though at the end of the day useless (completely). After all, even if we take these statistics as fact, how does it actually help Bobby to know this? Does he simply give up on the possibility of finding such a partner for life; or does he choose a different path? Well, Bobby’s own conclusions were typically mathematical – he decided that he needed to relax his parameters and not to be so prescriptive, something which led him, presumably, to a larger and far more appealing figure, one which may lead him to believe that he has a rather better chance of a suitable girlfriend. Nevertheless, this figure would have been, quite patently, just as absurd. You see, statistics only take account of the information available at the time; even then they can be read almost however you like. It seems to me that all sorts of less quantifiable data has been ignored. Human attraction is incredibly complex – it is, for instance, a well-known aphorism that ‘opposites attract’; Bobby may well find that he is more attracted to somebody who cannot stand Love Island and University Challenge, but can throw a javelin 50 metres and give a brilliant public speech at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, what if Bobby did find one of these 73 women? It may well be that there were lots of mutual interests, but no ‘chemistry’. And what on earth does that mean – ‘chemistry’ – in the field of human relationships? That is not an easy question, and I sincerely doubt that statistics will help you much. Perhaps the most fascinating part of all this will be to follow the real life of Bobby Seagull. We should perhaps try to do that in, say, ten years’ time; though I must admit that statistically, and I know this about myself, I am extremely unlikely to remember to do so.
Statistics continue to attract people, and I can understand why. The Daily Telegraph reported this in August this year: “He has never taken a wicket, never scored a run, never negotiated a broadcasting contract or even created a new Twenty20 league. Yet, quietly, Nathan Leamon can claim to be one of the most significant figures in cricket during the 2010s.” Nathan Leamon is, like Bobby Seagull, a Cambridge mathematician and maths teacher, who in the last eight years has turned his hand to something different and become the England cricket team analyst. Nathan conducts something called Monte Carlo simulations to map out the likely outcomes of games, in all formats, and has simulated matches with different sets of players and tactics to inform England’s strategy. His analysis breaks down the pitch into 20 blocks, of 100cm by 15cm each, finding the optimal block for each bowler against each batsman. Before each match he and the other England analysts prepare a comprehensive dossier, combining video footage and statistical analysis – covering England, their opponents as well as the grounds the matches will be played on – for the coach and captain. A smaller package – which largely comprises video footage – is sent to the players themselves.
Nathan, however, is more than a one-trick pony – he is one of the most remarkable people I know. He has eight A-Levels, mostly self-taught, and all bar one at the top grade (the one, incidentally, was Economics, which he attempted to teach himself in just a couple of months when he was already pretty busy with other things – in the days before the A* grade existed, his B grade still annoys him!). He writes poetry, cooks great curry, played rugby league for Cambridge University, he used to play in a band, and has just written his first novel. He is, in short, widely talented, a great thinker with genuine perspective – the best analyst England will ever have had, not because statistics mean everything to him, but because he has the wherewithal and the perspective to deal with those statistics. Nathan himself says the following about statistics:
“You’ve still got to select the team, you’ve still got to decide how to train, you’ve then got to decide what tactics you’re going to employ. All those decisions have always been made by people. It’s just that all we’re doing now is providing better evidence. So hopefully we’re improving the decision-making of selectors, coaches, and players by providing better evidence. It’s never a case of telling them what to do.”
Nathan Leamon will be here on Wednesday afternoon to talk about his first novel, entitled The Test. Meeting him will appeal to almost anybody, but particularly to English students, readers, writers, statisticians and cricketers. Do come along to the Langham Pavilion after school on Wednesday, if you can.