How I found the online Assessment as part of my application to the Maths Scholarship

Elizabeth MorlandIn May, I received an email inviting me to the online assessment. I was told it would begin with me spending three minutes answering the question, “But WHY do I need to learn about Scatter graphs? I’ll never use it once I leave school!”. And so, after initial scrabbling for a recent instance where I had used a scatter graph, I fell down a rabbit hole.

Fast forward two months, and as it turns out, three minutes is a very short time. Even with follow up questions, there is only so much that you can say. I did manage to say how data visualisations such as the scatter plot allow you to see connections that would be near impossible to discern in the dense disorientated format of a table. I did manage to say a few other things as well. But the list of things I didn’t manage to say is much longer.

I didn’t manage to say how…
Like many parts of mathematics, scatter graphs emerged entwined with their scientific use, first described in a paper by John Frederick W. Herschel about the orbits of double stars.
What makes scatter graphs so good (how easy it is to spot correlations) also makes them dangerous, as they can seem like they display irrefutable causal truths when no such connection exists (just google “spurious correlations”).
Francis Galton, one of the main popularisers of the scatter graph, was a eugenicist, and so the dangerous confusions between correlation and causation were in play right from their infanthood.
Hans Rosling’s TED talk, “The best stats you’ve ever seen”, where he explains geo-political development through dynamic scatter graphs, are some of the best stats I had ever seen.
Many more things that the word count of this blog post won’t even allow me to mention here.

Maybe the next time I’m preparing for an online assessment I should spend less time reading things that I’ll never get the chance to talk about and more time enjoying the spring sunshine. But, just because I couldn’t talk about them during those 40 minutes doesn’t mean I never will. For a start, I’ve written this blog post. More importantly, I’m really looking forward to the first time I get to teach scatter graphs: at the very least, I’ll be able confidently to answer any student who asks me, “But WHY?”

By Elizabeth Morland