In our April issue: the tragedy of Flint, and the hunt for exoplanets

More than a year ago now, Twitter carried the story of Flint, Michigan across 3700 miles, direct to my computer screen in London, UK. As a parent of two young children, it was the human tragedy of Flint that initially gripped and horrified me. I felt the pain and helplessness of those trapped in such an impossible situation, where tap water – drinking water – was poisoning their loved ones.

LeeAnne Walters, the Flint resident and mother who recruited scientists to help her prove the extent of lead contamination in the city’s water supply, became an inspiring figure. She features only briefly in our cover story – much less than she deserves, given the role she played in raising awareness of the unfolding problems. But our focus is naturally on the water test data, and how the sampling, collection and reporting of these data misled residents for so long.

Drawing attention to these issues, at this time, seems appropriate. April is Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, which provides an opportunity to promote the role both disciplines play in addressing many real-world problems. One of the great strengths of statistical training is the ability to diagnose problems where data are concerned. The Flint data were eventually made right, but it is important to learn how things can go wrong, and the kind of questions to ask when in doubt.

Elsewhere, Robert Matthews sets out to raise awareness of another major problem: that of p-values and the misuse of statistical significance testing. It’s been a year since the American Statistical Association published a statement concerning this, and more than two decades since Matthews started writing on the topic. He argues that little has changed in that time; Ron Wasserstein and David Spiegelhalter have their own takes on the situation.

But it’s not all bad news, this issue. While Jessi Cisewski was finalising her feature on the challenges of detecting Earth-like planets, NASA announced seven new discoveries. Some last-minute edits where required, but a bit of extra work was worth the excitement and hope many will have felt when NASA tweeted: “Around a nearby, cold, small star we found 7 rocky Earth-size planets, all of which could have liquid water – key to life as we know it.”

Statisticians and statistical methods have an important role to play in helping astronomers discover exoplanets such as these. That’s something else worth drawing attention to as we celebrate Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month.