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Holding a mirror up to humanity


July 14, 2006
Statisticians who trace all matters biological to descend on McGill campus

Jim Hanley traces his love of statistics back to the weeks he spent in Waterloo, Ont., in 1970 examining hundreds of smelly cigarette butts. Recently arrived from his native Cork, Ireland, Hanley was doing legwork for a University of Waterloo study on the effects of low-tar and nicotine cigarettes on the inhalation patterns of smokers. “I had to go knock on their doors at the end of each week and collect their bag of butts,” recalled Hanley, now a professor of biostatistics, epidemiology and occupational health at McGill. “It was a fascinating introduction to the people behind the numbers.”

On July 16, Hanley will be welcoming 750 of his fellow statisticians from around the world for the five-day XXIII International Biometric Conference, the biennial get-together on the science and technology of measuring and statistically analyzing biological, biomedical, environmental, agricultural and ecological information. The conference, organized by the National Research Council of Canada, will be held on the downtown Montreal McGill campus. It will include more than 70 sessions on subjects related to the study of health, environment, agriculture and wildlife.

Dr. Hanley, who chairs the local organizing committee for the conference, maintains that, notwithstanding Benjamin Disraeli’s assertion that the three types of lie include “lies, damned lies and statistics,” the world would be an altogether worse place without statisticians. “Every medical study you see; every clinical trial for AIDS drugs, every cancer study, all the infectious disease reports, all the analyses of proteomics and genomics — none of these would be possible without statisticians,” he said, adding, “We hold up a mirror to humanity and say, ’Look; here’s who we are.’”

Among the topics being discussed at the conference will be the controversy over industry-funded drug studies, advances in environmental data analysis, infectious disease outbreaks and the overriding theme of the impact of technology on the realm of statistics.

The conference’s organizing president, Prof. Geert Molenberghs of Belgium, said McGill and Montreal provide the ideal environment for the meeting. “In a field where people tend to work in ways that aren’t always conducive to networking and the easy sharing of ideas, these events are all the more crucial. The Society couldn’t celebrate its 60th anniversary in a more fitting location.”


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