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About statistics and the zap and scan culture

About statistics and the zap and scan culture

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Gerard van Breukelen inspired by Ad van der Ven

Many scientists, from Health Sciences to Economics, have no real idea about what they are doing when make statistical calculations. They know how the software (SPSS) works but they usually don’t know the model behind it. Helpless researchers from Health Sciences, Medicine and Psychology regularly knock on professor Gerard van Breukelen’s door, who sees it as “patient care”. Often they only come when they are at the data analysis stage, or worse, when their article has been refused. “I try to encase their research design and the question in a model, literally staring at the sky and seeing the variables before me, including the arrows between them.”

The love of mathematics germinated during his time as a psychology student in Nijmegen. It happened in his third year, when Van Breukelen (55), who grew up in Oss, became fascinated by the subject of Methodology by the statistics teacher Ad van der Ven. “A whole world opened up in front of me. I discovered how you could capture research data in statistical models. Van der Ven was passionate, and believed in what he taught. And I got caught up in it. Of the two hundred students in my year, I was the only one to choose mathematical psychology as my major. There were times when I did a subject with two other students in the professor’s room.”

Van Breukelen did a PhD in Nijmegen, worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a year and ended up at the UM in 1991. “It was then that I realised how valuable Van der Ven’s lessons in methodology were for science. It can be used to mathematically describe all kinds of relations that were being researched – between smoking and lung cancer, studying and career perspectives, you name it. Van der Ven was not a pioneer but he was the one who initiated me into the subject with inspiration.”

Statistics was not popular then and that is still the case. Maybe less than ever, with the present “zap and scan culture,” in which depth is a dirty word. “Every lecturer complains about it: many students no longer read study books, they scan only those passages that they need. And you can’t blame them, because they have an awful lot to digest. Sometimes they have two blocks at the same time, each with ten assignments, practicals and loads of literature. Many also have jobs. This encourages minimalistic study behaviour. Learning to think takes time. Less is more.”

As a researcher Van der Ven never made a name for himself. “He suffered from a lack of focus, he had many interests and through hypnotherapy and biofeedback he ended up in the alternative scene. He never finished his research. He became frustrated as a lecturer, lacked recognition and expressed himself critically about the organisation in front of students. Not clever.”

This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

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