The 10 most-read articles of 2015

In a year that has seen Star Wars return to the big screen, it is no surprise to find that Will Kurt's article, 'Han Solo and Bayesian priors', was our most popular article of 2015. The combination of sci-fi and statistics proved compelling, but readers also flocked to articles on electronic voting, opinion polls and rugby predictions. In our last update of the year, we present our 10 most-read articles of the past 12 months.

Han Solo and Bayesian priors
One of the most memorable errors in statistical analysis is a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo, attempting to evade enemy fighters, flies the Millennium Falcon into an asteroid field. The ever knowledgeable C3PO informs Solo that probability is not on his side. Is C3PO's analysis wrong? Clearly Han believes it's dangerous: "They'd have to be crazy to follow us." None of the pursuing Tie Fighters make it through, which provides pretty strong evidence that C3PO's numbers are not off. So what are we missing?

How trustworthy are electronic voting systems in the US?
When you do your civic duty, and cast your vote for the various candidates and public propositions at an electronic voting machine, how confident are you that the results will be tabulated honestly? If you feel less than sanguine about it and do a bit of the research to assuage your doubts, be prepared to feel even less confident afterwards. After years of casual research, the results I found have led me to file a lawsuit requesting access to the records needed to perform an audit myself. My statistical analysis shows patterns indicative of vote manipulation in machines.

How exceptional a rugby player was Brian O’Driscoll?
Brian O’Driscoll enjoys legendary status among Irish sports fans. The public perception of O’Driscoll is one of a truly exceptional player who stood apart from his peers in the era of professional rugby. Yet many rugby fans outside Ireland, while recognising that he was a great player, perhaps thought Ireland fans were inclined to exaggerate about his brilliance, especially later in his career. The debate is understandable. When O’Driscoll burst on to the scene with a hat-trick of tries in Paris, his remarkable ability to change pace and direction was immediately apparent. As he matured, his contribution became a less obvious – a more subtle combination of passing, positioning and leadership. So was Brian O’Driscoll truly exceptional?

Is innovation faltering - or is GDP?
In a recent New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman raises the spectre of a “growth slowdown”. “A growing number of economists,” he writes, “looking at the data on productivity and incomes, are wondering if the technological revolution has been greatly overhyped.” Krugman quotes PayPal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel, who – when complaining about technology – said: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” But are official estimates of productivity and incomes, on which so much of this pessimism relies, the right way to measure the advance of technology?

Who will win the Rugby World Cup?
As Yogi Berra, once said: ‘It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future’. Like most future events, it is impossible to know for certain who will win the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but we can estimate probabilities of various outcomes occurring. We do this by building a rating system for international rugby matches and using these ratings to estimate expected score margins (like who will win and by how much.) We can then characterize uncertainty around these predictions.

Opening the archives: a significant development
Significance was launched in March 2004 with a clear remit: to demonstrate the importance of statistics and the contributions it makes in all areas of life. Articles were to be written for a broad audience: not just statisticians, but anyone with an interest in the analysis and interpretation of data. Accessibility was – and still is – our watchword. But while our articles might be easy to read, it hasn’t always been easy for readers to get access to the magazine’s archive. Now it is.

Running against the odds – The probabilities of the London Marathon ballot
The late Chris Brasher, founder of the London Marathon, described the event as the ‘Suburban Everest’ - something everyone can aspire to do. Over the years, an increasing number of people have done just that. At the first London Marathon in 1981 there were 7,000 runners, in 2016 there will be 37,000. However, the demand for places vastly outstrips the supply. This year 17,000 places were made available to the general public, via a ballot. The exact system has changed as the event has grown in popularity, but the concept is similar every year. For the 2016 event, a staggering 247,069 people registered.

Polls, polls and damn statistics
During the UK general election campaign, there was much consternation as a Populus poll put Labour five points in the lead, while a Lord Ashcroft poll over the same fieldwork dates put them six points behind. Much of the brouhaha over these and other polls is down to statistical illiteracy, and a poor understanding of the nature of the sampling and weighting methods used in the polling industry, with some basic misnomers common even among relatively informed debate.

How the anti-vaccine movement lie with statistics
Sometimes Facebook’s suggestions of things to read lead to some seriously funny material. After clicking on a link about vaccines, Facebook recommended I read an article about health outcomes in unvaccinated children. Reading this rubbish made me as annoyed as a certain box of blinking lights, but it again affords me the opportunity to describe how people can confuse, bamboozle, and twist logic using bad statistics.

How to identify goal scoring ability in football
The transfer market in football is a strange beast. For anyone who doesn’t know how it works, clubs are allowed to buy and sell players during two windows each year: one during January and another during the summer. Despite the huge sums of money spent, analysts in the media judge player acquisitions based on just a few rudimentary statistics: goals scored and pass completion percentage being two of the more popular ones. With regard to clubs themselves, whatever statistical analysis they use for player recruitment is kept secret. However, we suspect some owners and managers buy (and sell) players largely on gut instinct, along with these most basic statistics.

Thanks for reading, and best wishes for the holidays. We'll be back in 2016.