St. Olaf News


Statistician to lecture on science of psychic phenomena

KleberGerySpeaker250x250Jessica Utts, a professor of statistics at the University of California, Irvine who is perhaps the only statistician to have appeared on Larry King Live, will deliver two lectures at St. Olaf College on April 15 as this year’s Kleber-Gery Speaker.

In the evening lecture, Utts will explain how studies of possible psychic phenomena are carried out and analyzed, and will discuss how the U.S. government has been involved in these studies. She will also include a more general discussion on the ways that statistical science is used to make conclusions and on how belief can play a role even in apparently objective sciences.

“One of the benefits of being a statistician is letting data tell the story. But I have learned that sometimes belief plays at least as large a role as data in how the story evolves,” Utts says.

While the evening lecture is geared toward a general audience and requires no background knowledge in statistics, the afternoon lecture is intended for mathematics and statistics specialists. In this technical talk, Utts will delve deeper into the data from studies of psychic phenomena, and will show how frequentist and Bayesian analyses of the same data may reach different conclusions.

Utts, a fellow of the American Statistical Association, has received international recognition for promoting statistical literacy and for evaluating research on possible psychic phenomena. Congress has even asked Utts to review the government’s use of psychics in intelligence work.

A St. Olaf alumnus started the Kleber-Gery Speaker Series in order to sponsor a yearly lecture on topics important to the departments of economics and mathematics, statistics, and computer science.