Math Awareness Month – Q & A with Andrew Gelman

As part of our Math Awareness Month celebrations we asked Dr. Andrew Gelman how his interest in sports has had influence on his career in statistical mathematics.  Although Dr. Gelman noted that he was often picked last in gym class, he continues to be a fan of sports and his credentials in academia certainly make up for his lack of athleticism. Dr. Gelman is currently a Mathematics Professor at Columbia University. His statistical expertise has won him various awards such as the Outstanding Statistical Application award from the American Statistical Association, the award for best article published in the American Political Science Review, and the Council of Presidents of Statistical Societies award for outstanding contributions by a person under the age of 40. He is also the author of Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

PUP: What sports are you fond of?

Andrew Gelman: I always preferred soccer, actually.

PUP: Did you enjoy sports or mathematics first as a child?

Andrew Gelman: As a child, I always enjoyed sports, but I imagine I’m not unique among mathematicians in having often been the last kid in the playground to be picked for any team. I remember some very long and unpleasant softball games in 5th grade recess.

PUP: How did you become interested in sports and/or mathematics?

Andrew Gelman: I graduated from college (majoring in mathematics and physics) in 1986, and one of the factors influencing me to go into statistics were the baseball abstracts which Bill James published annually during most of the 1980s.

PUP: Do you find yourself using math while watching or playing sports?

Andrew Gelman: I don’t think my interest in mathematics and statistics has any impact at all in my participation in sports, but it certainly increases my enjoyment in spectator sports.

PUP: What can coaches or athletes gain by having an understanding of mathematics?
Andrew Gelman: I’m sure that coaches and athletes can gain a lot from statistical analysis when coupled with good coaching strategy. Earl Weaver was famous for making the best use of his players, focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses, and putting them in the lineup when appropriate. Statistical analysis can give a better idea of what works in what settings, and sophisticated statistical analysis can move us past generalities toward situation-specific recommendations.