Statistically speaking, if you want to be a Miss America, you shouldn't live in Maryland. That's the bad news from the Washington Hilton, where the American Statistical Association's 139th annual meeting ends today.
You should also try to be about 5-foot-6, tall, with bust and hips in the 34- to 36-inch range and a waist about 12 inches smaller, according to George L. Miller of Northern Illinois University, whose mathematical study, "The Anatomy of Miss America," was one of the most avidly read of the more than 1,000 papers delivered at the five-day meeting.
Your college major -- you should be at least a sophomore -- is also important. Music and broadcasting students have done best, while nursing and liberal arts have done worst. No statistician has ever won the Miss America title, and only one has ever gone to the Atlantic City pageant.
But by Tuesday, 3,421 of them were in Washington. And they were by no means as dull as folklore has painted them.
Traditionally ranked with accountants and actuaries among the professionally unexciting, the statisticians gave and heard many talks with titles like "Estimation of Stationary Structural System Parameters from Non-stationary Random Vibration Data." But many others dealt with subjects such as child abuse and oil reserves, rehabilitation of criminals and drug addicts, the effect of welfare programs on family stability, estimating the auction price of a painting and why railroad employees have more serious drinking problems than the general population.
Jerome Cornfield of George Washington University calls his profession "an attempt to deal in a logically consistent way with uncertainties.
"Physics is a science," he said, "whereas statistics is a way of thinking about things. The very fact that statisticians don't always agree with one another indicates that we don't have unique methods of arriving always at the truth.
"Most people are very unhappy when they find themselves in an uncertain frame of mind. A statistician may not be happy with uncertainty, but he accepts it as a fact of life."
It is certain, however, that this year's ASA meeting (held jointly with the Biometric Society and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics) is the largest in history. And those present confirmed the hypothesis that theirs is now a booming industry. "The only unemployed statisticians are those who want to be unemployed," said Keren Coxe, an unemployed Washington statistician.
Washington is "a statistician's paradise," she added. It is probably the world's largest producer and consumer of statistics, although the professionals will not say for certain without hard data. But the Washington chapter of the ASA is the largest in the nation, with more than 10 percent of the total membership, and James O'Brien of the Census Bureau said that Washington is the world's leading statistical center "numerically, if not always intellectually."
Beyond the demand of next year's census, George E.P. Box of the University of Wisconsin explained the statistics boom this way: "We have these problems -- population, energy, pollution and others -- and we get to the point of asking, 'Where are we? What are the numbers?' When you get the numbers, you need someone to tell you what the numbers mean, and when you're collecting them, you need someone to tell you what kind of numbers you will need."
Statistics may seem complex and abstruse, but it is really a more controlled and scientific way of doing things that we all do every day. For example, said one statistician, "a consumer going through a supermarket and deciding how many cans of soup or loaves of bread to buy is engaged in a series of statistical processes.If the butter runs out before the next shopping day or the milk is kept too long and goes sour, you know you have faulty methodology."
But at its more complex levels, statistics can easily baffle or deceive the layman, warned Emanuel Parzen of Texas A&M, the author of one of the basic textbooks in the field. "One problem," he said, "is that people who need statistical analysis don't get professionals for the work."
One reason may be the intimidating language. In the hotel's lobbies and corridors, the usual tourist chitchat about monuments, restaurants and parking was sprinkled with remarks such as: "I can't accept your universe"; "You have a very sloppy data base"; and, "The analysis was elegant, but the findings were counter-intuitive, so they ordered another study."
"Statistics has grown enormously and changed tremendously since I became a statistician in 1936," said ASA president Herman O. Hartley. "Originally, it was studied and used largely for agriculture and engineering, but now it is finding more vital fields of application in such areas as biomedical studies, systems analysis and operations research."
The computer, he said, has not threatened the job security of statisticians -- in fact, it has enormously increased their value. "In the past, statiticians have been inclined to formulate a problem in an oversimple manner so that they could solve it mathematically. Now, they can take account of data that had to be previously neglected."
The concerns of statisticians tend to reflect those of society, so it is hardly surprising that next year's census will be asking a lot of questions about energy and transportation, car-pooling and the amount of time consumed going to and from work.
"In the 19th century," said one Census Bureau employe, "we never dared to ask people about their income, but there were lots of questions like: 'Do you have any idiots in the family?' Now we can ask people about money, but we tend to avoid questions about mental handicaps and that sort of subject."
When gathered over a period of time, statistics can show a subject in motion and give it a sort of depth perspective. In his study of Miss America, for example, George Miller made some observations of permanent value ("Judges do seem to favor a symmetry of bust and hip with waists approximately 12 inches smaller"), but he was also able to examine the changing figures of the American feminine ideal over the past 20 years.
Miss America pageant members in 1978, for example, had lost an impressive average of five pounds since 1959 (down to 116.24 from 121.2) and, with it, almost half an inch of bust (35.06 vs. 35.50). Hips are smaller (35.12 compared to 35.57), but the waistline has expanded more than half an inch (23.92 in 1978; 23.33 in 1959).
"Generally," he said, "the differences between the winners and the runners-up have been diminishing as the years go by -- I suppose people observe what wins and approach it as closely as they can."
In his exhibit, Miller included a chart telling fellow-statisticians how they could predict the winner of next month's contest. "It might not zero in on the exact winner," her reflected "but using it you could probably narrow it down to the top half-dozen."
Other statisticians are less optimistic about the way their work is used -- particularly those who work for politicians. One Census Bureau employe said he is often upset at some of the purposes to which census information is put. "Of course it is shocking and appalling," he said, then he paused reflectively.
"But how could it be otherwise?" he added.