John Bailer, Rosemary Pennington and Richard Campbell generate the stories statistics tell.
John Bailer, Rosemary Pennington and Richard Campbell generate the stories statistics tell.

With 100+ episodes, "Stats + Stories" continues to advocate for numerical literacy

By Ryan McSheffrey, university news and communications intern

Miami University’s John Bailer believes people have a big problem with numbers.

"There are people who are prideful in their statements of 'I don't do math,'" said Bailer, chair of Miami's department of statistics and University Distinguished Professor. "The idea that you could be prideful in your ignorance is a sad commentary for me."

According to Bailer, there's something of a double standard going on.

"If you were illiterate, you'd be embarrassed to say so. It would be viewed as something you need to fix."

Miami's Richard Campbell has firsthand experience in a field he says students who have this kind of statistical illiteracy tend to drift toward.

"Even when I was a journalist, I felt like I didn't know enough to tell stories with data and numbers in them," said Campbell, professor and former chair of the department of media, journalism and film.

"A lot of it was related to my own fear of numbers, and (this is) shared by many journalism students-- this trepidation. So I'm a big fan of (journalism) students taking statistics and science courses because you're going to have to report on those things somewhere along the line."

Around a decade ago, Campbell and Bailer co-taught a class to address that problem. Eventually, though, their schedules got too busy for the class to continue.

However, the pair was unwilling to relinquish in their crusade against statistical illiteracy and launched a podcast in 2013: "Stats + Stories." Note the addition sign in place of an ampersand -- there's more to that than just weaving a little math into the title.

"If you take good statistics and take good narrative, you get a combination that's more than the sum of the parts," Bailer said.

New funding = increased production

Each week, Rosemary Pennington, assistant professor of media, journalism and film, teams up with Campbell and Bailer to host the podcast. Pennington, who is the moderator, replaced Bob Long, who left the show in 2016 upon retirement. The trio interviews guests who work with statistics, such as journalists, statisticians, and government and non-government officials.

The show ramped up to weekly production after receiving funding from the American Statistical Association last year. It’s also landed a listing on National Public Radio's website.  A typical episode has 800-1,200 listeners, some of whom tell the panelists about its reach.

"My niece told me her high school math teacher was a fan of 'Stats + Stories' and used it in class," Bailer said. "My nephew who goes to another university said a professor assigned it as an assignment in class."

Journalist Jonny Jacobsen shared his use of statistics in his reporting during an episode of "Stats + Stories."

Though some episodes focus on statistical concepts like Bayes’ theorem or the p-value, most center on everyday topics. There are episodes centered on statistics in football, radio ratings and Russian social media meddling. 

One episode with a nice practical application of statistics was with Jonny Jacobsen, a journalist who wrote a piece about the health risks of coal mining for Significance Magazine.

“It emphasized the importance of data in not an abstract way, but he's also a journalist, so it's kind of a nice intersection of that idea of stats and stories,” Pennington said. “Given what our focus is, I thought it epitomized what we were trying to do.”

A recent episode marked the podcast's 100th. The three panelists and producer, Charles Blades, talked about the past and future of the show.

"If we want to create this conversation between statisticians and journalists and scholars, we need to get journalists more involved," Pennington said.

As such, there are plans to ramp up the number of journalists they have on in the future.

"The more high profile and visible we become, the more high-profile guests we can bring on, the more audience we can reach," Pennington said.