Meet the ‘stats ambassadors’ taking the fear out of numbers

21 Sep 2018

Participants at the RSS statistical ambassador training day, with Joy Leahy and Dr Norma Bargary in centre. Image: bigTimages/RSS

Ireland now has two ‘stats ambassadors’ to boost the understanding and reporting of statistics. Dr Norma Bargary and Joy Leahy spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

We see facts and figures from scientific studies in news reports all the time. But do they always stack up?

Two new ‘stats ambassadors’ in Ireland, Dr Norma Bargary and Joy Leahy, want to encourage a better understanding of statistics, from study design right through to how findings are communicated. Both are among the third cohort of ambassadors to be trained by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) in the UK, and they are the first stats ambassadors to be based in Ireland.

Statistical impact

“A badly communicated statistic can have a fairly serious impact,” said Bargary, a lecturer in statistics at the University of Limerick (UL) and now an RSS ambassador. “We see them in the news – a claim that something we do or eat or drink increases our risk of something happening, and that does impact people’s lives.”

young blonde woman smiling wearing high-necked white floral blouse in front of white circular window.

Dr Norma Bargary. Image: bigTimages/RSS

On reading media reports about risks and benefits, people may change their consumption of a particular food or beverage (blueberries, coffee, bacon, I’m looking at you) or ponder their alcohol intake. Meanwhile, on a public health level, a poorly designed and reported study can have a disastrous impact, such as the persistence of measles in the wake of a now discredited study by Andrew Wakefield on the MMR vaccine.

“If you think about the issues that arise from poorly conducted studies, poorly reported information and inappropriate conclusions drawn from data, the best case is that we have a loss of faith in science, and there is only so much noise you can listen to before you switch off – so, when the real warnings come along, they could be ignored,” said Bargary. “Then, at the worst end of the scale, we give patients false hope or we have catastrophic impacts like the aftermath of the MMR study.”

The idea of the stats ambassador role is to engage with researchers, schools, the media and the public in general about statistics. “We want to try and explain things in a simple way, and to take the fear out of numbers and show how useful statistics are when used properly,” explained Bargary. “We also want to encourage people to use their common sense; if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Statistical thinking

One of Bargary’s aims as a stats ambassador is to work with researchers on approaches to statistics. “I want to highlight the process from collection of data all the way through,” she said. “There is a big difference between calculations and statistical thinking, and we are hoping to plan a lecture series with some high-profile statisticians. We want to get researchers into a room and talk about it because, as statisticians and scientists, we should do more to make sure we aren’t adding to the noise.”

As an undergraduate in UL, Bargary was inspired by Prof Ailish Hannigan to study statistics more in depth and went on to do a PhD in the subject. “Statistics just clicked with me, and I think it’s almost like a calling,” she said.

Today, in her work at UL, Bargary collaborates with researchers across a range of disciplines – including physiotherapy, biology, medicine and sports science – to help them collect data and answer questions.

Jargon-free zone

Both Bargary and Leahy underwent training in the UK to prepare for their roles as stats ambassadors, and that included learning about clear language, recalled Leahy, who carried out her PhD studies at Trinity College Dublin and is now a statistician at the National Centre of Pharmacoeconomics Ireland.

young woman with long dark brown hair wearing red top and smiling, standing in front of white wall.

Joy Leahy. Image: bigTimages/RSS

“We looked at how not to use jargon; we learned how to say things in what we hope are relatively simple terms that everyone can understand,” said Leahy. Citing an example, she said: “Using the term such as ‘P value’ [to describe a result] is not likely to hold interest, but instead we can say that, thanks to statistical tests, we can see that this would be unlikely to have happened by chance.”

Leahy now wants to work with the public and the media on a better understanding of statistics and what they mean. “It can be hard to get all the nuances of the statistics, and we want to be there to help if there are questions,” she said. “I would like to see everyone being able to make informed decisions.”

To send press queries to the RSS ambassador programme, please email

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication