The Statistical Significance of Beer

(Photo: Francis)

According to a new paper by Stephen T. Ziliak, it was a brewer at the famed Guinness beer company, William Sealy Gosset, who first began to explore the concept of statistical significance:

Gosset (1876–1937) aka “Student” – he of Student’s t-table and test of statistical significance – rejected artificial rules about sample size, experimental design, and the level of significance, and took instead an economic approach to the logic of decisions made under uncertainty. In his job as Apprentice Brewer, Head Experimental Brewer, and finally Head Brewer of Guinness, Student produced small samples of experimental barley, malt, and hops, seeking guidance for industrial quality control and maximum expected profit at the large-scale brewery. In the process Student invented or inspired half of modern statistics.

 Here’s more detail on Gosset’s contributions:

As Head Experimental Brewer, a position he held from 1907 to 1935, Student’s main charge was to experimentally brew, and to gradually improve, a consistent barrel of Guinness stout, input by input, from barley breeding to malt extract, at efficient economies of scale. Pounding out more than 100 million gallons of stout in annual sales, the problem Student faced at Guinness was economically motivated and non-trivially large. While endeavoring to control product and reduce costs at the large brewery Student was consistently faced with a small number of observations on new barley to try, at n = 2, 4, or – if he was lucky – 7. In the process, he – though self-trained in statistics – managed to solve a general problem in the classical theory of errors which had eluded statisticians from Laplace to Pearson.

Less well-known is Student’s contribution to experimental design, systematically ignored by Fisher. Student found a method for maximizing the power to detect big economic differences (low Type II error) when the quantitative difference is really there to be detected.

So the next time you’re studying statistics, consider raising a pint of Guinness in Gosset’s honor.

(HT: Wonkblog)

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  1. BL1Y says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      Here’s a statistic: Amy Winehouse’s BAC was…get ready…ready…here it is: 0.416

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    • for the number says:

      In most countries at the moment, the active ingredient of the stuff is the single most dangerous and lethal drug.

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      • Eric M. Jones. says:

        I beg to differ.

        Cigarettes kill about 400,000 people a year. Alcohol kills about 100,000 per year, (Marijuana kills zero people per year).

        Depending on how you define “dangerous”, nicotine is the big killer. Injected nicotine and injected cocaine have virtually identical effects, and most people can’t tell the difference.

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  2. Nosybear says:

    I use this tale every time I have to teach statistical methods to new Black Belts. And if we get along well, we may actually go out for a pint. It brings home the principle of thinking statistically in a very real and tasty way!

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  3. Ian says:

    You may all be aware of an international day of statistical study coming up soon on March 17 ;-)

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  4. Shane L says:

    I gather also that Gosset had to publish anonymously under “Student” because Guinness was worried that rival companies would use his techniques if they knew he was applying them in Guinness.

    By the way, Guinness is also discussed in another science for the weird phenomenon of the bubbles ‘floating’ downwards instead of up:

    “Using a high-speed digital camera with a zoom lens, they tracked the movement of the elusive bubbles on film. They believed they would prove downward-floating bubbles were nothing more than an illusion, but found the opposite to be true.

    They say the nitrogen bubbles which touch the walls of the glass experience drag, which hinders them from floating up. Bubbles in the centre of the glass, though, can rise freely. This creates a circular flow causing the bubbles at the edge of the glass to be pushed downwards.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/mar/17/highereducation.science

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  5. John Mattox says:

    I want more–statistical inforamtion–and Guiness!

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  6. ryan says:

    What do you mean, according to a new paper? People have known for years that Gosset started all those things…

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    • Kimberly says:

      Agreed. It’s a great story that should be widely disseminated, but I heard this in more than one statistics class in the 1980′s. Anyone who’s ever taken intro stats from a good professor knows that “Student” worked at Guinness, though they may not have heard of the specific problems that Gossett was tackling.

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    • Eva says:

      Agreed, this is one of the few things I recall very clearly from my statistics classes in Ireland. The hazy fog of stout takes care of the rest.

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  7. Gary Spedding says:

    Known by a few brewers for some time – nevertheless still an interesting post conveying the details. Many aspects of chemistry, math and physics (and microbiology) were pioneered through the examination/testing of alcoholic beverages.

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