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ESRA Award Winner Talks About ‘Bringing the Invisible Superhero of Science to Light’

1 November 2015 326 views 3 Comments

Morteza Marzjarani

The Committee on the Excellence in Statistical Reporting Award selected Julie Rehmeyer as the winner of its 2015 award. Rehmeyer was a professor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as a contributing editor for Discover.

Members of the ESRA committee were especially impressed with the number and breadth of Rehmeyer’s articles. Her work spans two books, recurring contributions to ScienceNews.com and Discover, and an array of articles in science- and general-audience publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that help connect the public with science. In particular, the committee pointed to two articles that stood out:

What follows is an interview with Rehmeyer.

Julie Rehmeyer

Julie Rehmeyer

When did you become interested in statistics?

I’ve actually never taken a statistics course, and it took me quite a while to discover the joys of statistics. I did my graduate work in mathematics at MIT, but I was a dumb kid and only saw the appeal of the purest of the pure mathematics, being a mystic at heart. I sneered at applied subjects like statistics and engineering. My attitude started to change when I designed and built my own house and the engineering I learned to calculate beam sizes and such enchanted me. Using mathematics to do something was really cool!

I became a professor of mathematics and the classics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. John’s is a teaching college, and its faculty members have little time for research. I loved the teaching, but eventually found that I missed having my own intellectual and creative work. But at that point, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t see myself doing research mathematics. On a lark, I picked up a statistics book over the summer and had a ton of fun learning statistics. But I ultimately decided to head in the direction of science writing.

What do you particularly enjoy about writing about statistics? How is it different from writing about science?

I wrote the Math Trek column at Science News for quite a few years, and I took particular pleasure in finding statistics stories for my column. It felt like I was bringing the invisible superhero of science to light. 

On a deeper level, I find it especially meaningful to write about mathematics and statistics because so many people have had wounding experiences with them in school. It gives me such enormous pleasure when someone says, “I read your article, and you know, I just don’t have a math brain and I hate math, but I think I understood your story, and it was pretty fun!” 

To me, when people come to believe they’re terrible at math, they’re suffering from a wound that’s ultimately a spiritual one. They’ve been convinced that their ability to find pattern and meaning in the world is somehow fundamentally flawed. The impacts of that kind of wound go far beyond anxiety when it comes to calculating a tip or balancing a checkbook. In a background way, often unnoticed, it saps people’s power, makes it harder for them to access their deepest selves and bring that into the world.

So when someone is able to follow one of my stories and find a bit of joy in it, I hope that wound heals a bit. I hope, in some small way, that it bolsters people’s confidence in themselves, and it shows them that the joy and power of mathematics is available for them, too.

Are there special challenges in writing about statistics?

One challenge is that people are often so frightened of it, so as a writer, you have to work especially hard to enter a different mindset and offer handholds along the way.

Another challenge is that statistics is all about uncertainty, and it’s easier to tell stories with clear, single outcomes.

I think one of the biggest tools to deal with both those challenges is narrative. Our brains are wired for story, so readers are better able to absorb information that way. And if you can weave the uncertainty into the story, it can acquire a power of its own, rather than merely diluting the power of a tidy result.

What do you think about ESRA?

I’m really thrilled about receiving it. As writers, we often don’t see the impacts of our stories. We hear from very few readers, and the ones we hear from are far from representative: They’re often those who are outraged. We throw our stories out there and move on to the next, hoping that they’re somehow adding up to something.

When I learned I was receiving the award, I was pleased, but I initially had a hard time really absorbing it. But being at the award ceremony, hearing the citation read, seeing the list of people on the committee I didn’t know who selected me, receiving my cup—it was really moving for me. It’s wonderful to know that people appreciate my work.

Do you have a hero in the discipline of statistics?

Florence Nightingale. My story about her, “The Passionate Statistician,” was one especially cited for my award. We tend to think of her as “the lady with the lamp,” saving the lives of wounded soldiers through her nursing. But she saved many more lives through her use of statistics, revealing the changes that needed to be made in nursing as a whole. She also did a huge amount of that work while fighting a serious chronic illness, and since I wrote many of my own statistics stories while dealing with a serious chronic illness, that was especially moving to me.

What have you done since you won the award?

I’m writing a book at the moment, a memoir about the science and politics of poorly understood illnesses. I was terribly ill with chronic fatigue syndrome for many years, eventually so sick that I was paralyzed much of the time, and I eventually discovered that for me, the central problem was a hypersensitivity to mold. Science hasn’t served chronic fatigue syndrome patients well, and the experience has affected my relationship to the institutions of science quite significantly. On the surface, this is far removed from statistics, but some of the questions at its heart are quite similar: How do we make sense of the evidence our bodies give us? How do we assess uncertainty? How do we make good decisions in the face of that uncertainty?

I’m also a Scripps environmental journalism fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I get to have the run of the university and take any class I please, but I have no responsibilities. Pretty sweet gig!

What are your other passions?

Recovering my health enough that I’m able to exercise again is an enormous thrill, so I’m loving biking and hiking and running and swimming. I take huge pleasure in my dog, Frances. I got married two years ago, and I still feel very much like a newlywed (and also like I can hardly remember life before him). I built my own straw bale house on 12 acres of streamside land outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I feel very connected to my house and land.

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  • Shecky R said:

    Fascinating outlook…
    And could Julie say which statistics book she picked up that gave her “a ton of fun learning statistics”? Inquiring minds want to know…

  • cort said:

    Wow. I come from the other side of the fence. I know Julie as superb writer and passionate advocate for people with chronic fatigue syndrome. I had no idea she loved statistics – one of the knottiest subjects I can think of. Congratulations to Julie and to ESRA for awarding someone is making a difference in several areas.

  • Ari said:

    BP deserves cridet for publishing the annual statistical review of key data on world energy from which the chart in this post is drawn. The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) uses the BP estimates of energy consumption for the most recent years, classified by source, to produce their “Preliminary global estimates by extrapolation” of fossil CO2 emissions for countries and regions – a widely used compilation.