April 22, 2024

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Anabel Forte (Yecla, 40 years old) is a great disseminator of mathematics and statistics because “they help us to value the information that comes to us and therefore makes us more critical citizens,” she says. She has sung, resorted to zombies or a program called Stat Wars to make himself understood when he disseminates in science schools. Graduated in both subjects —her specialty is quantifying uncertainty through Bayesian analysis—, Forte directs the chair of Digital Gender Gap at the University of Valencia and chairs the Spanish Society of Biostatistics. She insists that losing fear of technologies requires knowing and understanding them.

Ask. She says that she had close references (teachers and a professor), who guided her towards science. Did she find female math or physics in her college textbooks?

Answer. They were not there. Now there are projects like Women’s Legacy that are trying to recover those names, but I didn’t know that there were women mathematicians. The only name I would have mentioned when I was studying was that of Marie Curie. However, when you put on the purple glasses you find that there is a Cauchy-Kovalévskaya theorem, and the second last name belonged to a woman. I thought they were two gentlemen and then you learn that they weren’t. Or (Emmy) Noether, who has a lot of theorems in Physics and many don’t know that she was a woman.

Q. Has the presence of women in scientific careers normalized or is it still difficult?

R. In Baccalaureate, and even practically the doctorate, the numbers roughly give more women than men in science majors. If we start to break down the branches, we see that there are many in Architecture, Chemistry, Biology, Pharmacy, but you go to Physics, Computer Engineering or Telecommunications and they disappear. In IT it is terrible, I don’t know if the percentage in all of Spain is only 13% of women and it has dropped since the 80s, because it reached 30%.

Q. And what do we owe this for?

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R. It is difficult to separate the factors and there are no conclusive studies of why they stop going. We have intuitions. We know, for example, that girls from the age of 6 begin to see themselves as less bright than their male peers. And it is true that when the Mathematics job opportunity was teaching in the institutes there were more women than men in the teaching staff. But from the year 2000, Mathematics begin to be considered the sciences of the future and banks, companies, many sectors demand mathematicians. It is there where the trend begins to reverse and now they are 60% men and the rest women. I think it has to do with the new job opportunities for those careers. All the branches that start with “bio” are taken over by women and we believe that it has to do with care. In Statistics there is more or less gender equality but if you go to something called biostatistics there are more women. In Data Science or Engineering, with job opportunities in companies, there is a majority of men. We have to convince women that these specialties also take care of themselves. When teams designing a software are diverse, of different ages, different gender, etc., the program is usually more intuitive and easier to use.

Q. What about the digital gender gap?

R. We have realized that the gap begins at school and has to do with how we socialize with technology. There is a study from the University of Alicante, which analyzes the perception of Teaching students regarding their technological capabilities when they teach in the future: boys chose to use technology but they saw themselves as less capable of using it to teach. We are going to study this perception throughout the Valencian Community to understand and be able to make a guide to good practices that promote egalitarian referents in digitization in the classroom.

Q. British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell pointed out in an interview that women don’t always want to be as competitive as men. Is it an explanation for the scarcity of women in some branches of science?

R. They don’t socialize us as competitive, since we’re little they entrust us more to take care of our brother, not to stain our clothes; they socialize differently, competition is more common in children. It is difficult to separate what is natural and what is cultural.

Q. So women must be more competitive.

R. No, I think we need to change the system. The science system is terrible right now, it doesn’t allow a father or a mother to be with their children because of the dedication it requires. Another option is what the book proposes The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in academia. It’s another kind of science, doing things more calmly but then you’re out of the race. Because now the scientific career is just that: a career. See who posts more…

Q. Data science is experiencing a real boom. What does it contribute to society?

R. I would rather say what it has been contributing for many years because Statistics have served to improve our lives, it has helped to learn how to run States. Edmond Halley, who we know from the comet, was one of the first to devise mathematical and statistical formulas to calculate life expectancy. Or the case of Florence Nightingale, considered the mother of modern nursing thanks to the field data she collected. Now Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have arrived and data is collected from everywhere and to process all that data you need computing, statistics, mathematics and informatics.

Q. But the commodification of data is scary. Limits and regulation are needed.

R. We need diverse teams to think about ethics when using this data, and things are already being done. The problem is that we have massive data, which we give out with our permission, and there is no control over the ethics behind it. As a society we have to define where we want to go because there are many different interests and we have to reach a minimum agreement. We are at the peak of a moment of change and things will return to their normal course. We are still debating whether or not to leave the calculators in the PAU exams and how many years has the calculator been around? Technology scares us and sometimes we want it out of our lives because everything seems to be more natural without it. But we have to understand it because it is a laparoscopy, a cesarean section or an MRI. There are moments of crisis and fear but we must make a call for calm as citizens and, above all, they should serve so that the rulers and all those who have decision-making power sit down to talk about education, because right now we are afraid It’s because many of us don’t understand what an AI is. And everything you don’t understand is scary.

Q. She is a specialist in Bayesian statistical analysis, which is used to measure uncertainty. She sounds like in the future everything will be very predictable.

R. We all want some uncertainty because if we know what is going to happen to us tomorrow, how boring life would be. Uncertainty in this regard is beautiful, but when it comes to knowing the probability of a cure for cancer, we are not interested in uncertainty there. We need to know the more the better to find solutions. So quantifying uncertainty in Statistics is putting probabilities on things. In Education, we need to understand probability, teach students what probability is and what we measure with it, because they don’t know. Calculating uncertainty helps us better understand our life. Bayesin statistics is a way to quantify those probabilities.

Q. She is an enthusiastic disseminator of science and technology. What is the most extravagant thing that she has done to do science pedagogy?

R. (Series). Sing with the students the song: ‘There are three things in life: health, money and love. And whoever has those three things should thank God’. And when I get there I stop and ask them: ‘To God? How to God? To Statistics’.

Q. What is State Wars. The Data Empire?

R. It is a project that we carry out at a national level, it was born in Madrid by the researcher Rosa Lillo and it intends to tell people what this Statistics thing is because we have no idea. I would start teaching probability in kindergarten because as citizens we need to understand it. It makes them more critical when evaluating the information that comes to them because most of it is based on data. We did it in a playful way, with characters from Star Wars. An institute, a school, can go to a website and ask us to go to that center. We play and teach.

Q. Where to run when zombies attack? is the title of one of his conferences, I think from 2019. He explained how through statistics you could understand the behavior of zombies and help us escape from them.

R. I came from a stay in the US and a friend asked me to go to an event DataBeers to tell what he had done. I remembered that when I started teaching classes, I received news that they had made a mathematical model to explain zombie epidemics, and that’s where the idea came from. By the way, which are the models that have been used during the covid-19 pandemic. They called me from Madrid to participate in a conference for young mathematicians and it had a lot of repercussions. Then I wrote an article on The Conversation talking about it. And try that you can have a very nice model but that does not fully explain reality well because there is always a gap, a jump, between what the model says and what is true. This jump must be covered by quantifying the uncertainty with Bayesian statistics. They are used for everything.

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