Statistics gurus meet in Salt Lake to harness information

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Why is golfer Tiger Woods so good?

What can be done to improve the integrity of the electoral process, based on last year's race for Florida's 13th Congressional District seat?

And what is being done in Utah to advance understanding of Alzheimer's disease?

These three questions will be among dozens of topics addressed when more than 5,000 statisticians arrive in Salt Lake City for the 167th annual Joint Statistical Meetings, which runs Sunday through Wednesday at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The convention is expected to put $4.8 million into Salt Lake County's economy, said Karen Boe, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Statistics: Harnessing the Power of Information" is the theme of the convention, organized primarily by the American Statistics Association (ASA) with assistance from the International Biometric Society, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the Statistical Society of Canada.

"In our data-driven society, the statistics discipline has a proud heritage of helping make sensible decisions in the face of uncertainty," said William Smith, executive director of the ASA, which was founded in Boston in 1839 and held its first meeting the following year.

At this 167th session, he noted, those uncertainties revolve around "issues of national and international concern, such as global warming, medical advances, political processes, physical and social sciences and manufacturing processes and quality."

They also extend to topics as diverse as sports, national defense, weather, search engines and consumer safety.

That's why one of the 2,500 presentations, panels, roundtables, poster presentations, continuing education courses and exhibits will feature a statistical examination of Tiger Woods' golf performance by Scott Berry of Berry Consultants in College Station, Texas.

"Sports are notorious for attaching 'reasons' to randomness - there has to be a reason he wins so darn much," said Berry's speech synopsis. "When commentators and the sporting public talk about Tiger Woods, they inevitably say he has a tremendous will to win and is mentally better than everyone else. . . . Is Tiger Woods a winner, or is he so much better than anyone else that he just wins a lot?"

On the political front, Boston University's Arlene Ash is expected to provide statistical evidence that poor electronic ballot design impacted the outcome of the Florida congressional race. She will discuss reasons for the inability to eliminate errors from the voting process and the potential roles of statisticians in improving electoral processes.

The Alzheimer's session will focus on methods of early detection, epidemiology and clinical trials conducted in Utah.

Presenters include Gordon Chelune, senior neuropsychologist at the University of Utah's Center for Alzheimer's Care, Imaging and Research, the most comprehensive treatment, research and education resource for Alzhei¬mer's disease and dementia in the Intermountain West.

He will be joined by Chris Corcoran from Utah State University, two other academics and three scientists at Salt Lake City-based Myriad Pharmaceuticals - Mark Laughlin, Edward Swabb and Kenton Zavitz. C. Shane Reese of Brigham Young University is session chairman.