Math professor talks media and statistics

Courtesy of JOCELYN BAO HUSAM hosted professor Talitha Williams who spoke about statistics.

Courtesy of JOCELYN BAO
HUSAM hosted professor Talitha Williams who spoke about statistics.

By JACQUI NEBER
News & Features Editor

Talithia Williams, an associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, spoke at Hopkins as part of the Hopkins Undergraduate Society for Applied Mathematics (HUSAM) series of lectures. The series aims to make math fun and accessible for all students regardless of major. The talk was held on Wednesday, in Hodson 110 and was also hosted by the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Society of Women Engineers.

Williams divided the talk into sections. She focused on how statistics reported by different news outlets can be misleading or used incorrectly, leading to an altered public perception of their meaning.

She took time to show different charts and statistics used by news agencies that statistically didn’t make sense, using several examples from both Fox News and CNN. She pointed out similar problems with statistics often found on cereal boxes.

According to Williams, these examples showed the audience how the media misrepresents information in modern day America.

Williams described the purpose of collecting data and its potential drawbacks.

“Ultimately the goal is, what can we infer from this information we collected?” Williams said. “The goal is to see what you learn about it… But often that information is misrepresented.”

When discussing information posted on different breakfast cereal boxes, Williams described some of the problems with such misrepresentation.

“It led people to believe that if you bought this cereal for your child, somehow by them eating a bowl every morning of this sugary carbohydrate treat, they were somehow going to boost their immune system,” she said.

Williams further explained that scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) forced the Kellogg’s cereal company to impose stricter informational guidelines on its products. This was the second time in one year that Kellogg’s had come under investigation.

“We expect better from a great American food company that is making dubious claims not once but twice that a cereal improves children’s health,” Williams said.

Williams is also currently conducting research with the World Health Organization (WHO) and spoke of the organization’s collection and analysis of data on cataracts in Africa. She discussed some challenges of collecting data in different African countries where information like dates of birth are not so readily available as in the United States. She said that these challenges force data collectors to be creative with the questions they ask subjects to come up with age estimates.

Students had positive reactions to Williams’s points. Senior Agastya Mondal, the public relations chair of HUSAM, said he enjoyed the discussion. Mondal said about 250 people attended the lecture, including local Baltimore high school students.

He was pleased by the turnout and the quality of the event.

“The talk was really dynamic. She’s a really good speaker,” he said. “I think it’s hard sometimes to get people interested in math, particularly the real-world application of it, and to have someone who’s so excited about [it] is really cool for us.”

Sophomore Jared LeBron echoed Mondal’s sentiment about Williams. He was enthusiastic about the discussion topic and the way statistics were presented.

“I thought it was really cool for such a prominent figure in the world of statistics to come to Hopkins,” LeBron wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Not only was the presentation on her research of cataracts interesting, but her lecture on how big companies portray statistics to their benefit was eye opening as well!”

Sam Fossum contributed to the reporting.

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