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Everyday choices: Pauliina Ilmonen, can you tolerate uncertainty?

Ilmonen, Assistant Professor of Statistics, would not shun risks even if cattle started falling down from the sky.
Pauliina Ilmonen rakentaa tornia lego-palikoista kuvattuna työhuoneessaan. Kuva: Heidi-Hanna Karhu.

What statistics do you collect in your everyday life?

Regrettably, my children forbade me to answer that question.

How about diving into daily key figures?

Usually, I just dive down playground slides.

Which statistical population do you feel you belong to?

I reckon I belong to the human population. However, if I could choose, I would be a two-headed flying chamois... No, I would be a dragon, of course!

Do you have invariant coordinates for a holiday destination, or would you rather take a random sample?

When I was still young and wild, I used to travel by train. I let the dice decide which train I got on and where I got off. I always travelled alone as it is the best way to meet interesting people.

At the moment, the selection of holiday destinations is made more difficult by the fact that my son does not even agree to cross the River Aurajoki in Turku on the Föri ferry, as he suspects that the ferry – which is cable-driven – is headed abroad.

The definition of your branch of science states that statistics describing real-world phenomena always involve uncertainty and randomness. Has this taught you to tolerate uncertainty in your personal life?

I don’t shun risks. Uncertainty and unexpectedness are the best things about life. My favourite movie is Luna Papa and my favourite scene is the one at the end where a cow suddenly falls from the sky onto a guy.

That’s how life is. Just when you think everything is in order, an airborne cow might crush you. On the other hand, when you think you’re going to drown in an endless swamp of sadness, you may unexpectedly find the treasure at the end of the rainbow.

Nevertheless, statistics do help to structure life in the face of uncertainties, and mathematics brings comfort through order.

As the old joke has it, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Is it easy to distort the truth using statistics? Have you ever tried?

Statistical analysis is difficult. It is not always possible to discern whether incorrect or inappropriate analysis of statistics is intentional, or whether the analyst simply got lost in the sea of statistical methods.

Knowledge of statistics helps to examine a wide range of studies critically and to identify possible shortcomings in analysis. However, we should keep in mind that statistical research is based on probabilities, and even the most unlikely events may occur. They just occur very seldom.

I have to admit that sometimes when discussing with my husband, I plead to statistical analyses which may be questionable to say the least. As a sharp-eyed mathematician, however, he usually notices such foul play right away.

Do you spend time at the casino?

Normally, I don’t gamble, play the lottery or buy raffle tickets. But I do enjoy card and board games.

Once on a conference trip, a dinner was organised at a casino, and each participant was given one chip. You could only play if you took your passport with you. I had my passport, and so I went for the tables with three chips in my hand as some members of our group had not brought their passports. All I invested was those three chips. I spent the winnings by buying the dinner for everyone the next day.

Text: Paula Haikarainen
Photo: Heidi-Hanna Karhu

The article was originally published in Finnish, in Aalto University Magazine No. 14, October 2015. The Everyday choices column focuses on the personal choices experts make in association with their field of research.

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