Clearing the statistics hurdle with orcs and zombies

Statistics. That term alone is enough for most students and alumni to summon up memories of deep-seated traumas. From explanations of the theory that are often too quick to be understood to software that seems to be from another planet and intimidating mathematical formulas. It wasn’t all that difficult for UM alumnus, lecturer and writer Vince Penders (26). In fact: he wrote his own statistics exercise book.

When he was a Media Culture student, he did not come into contact with statistics until he did a minor in Psychology. There he discovered that he had a talent in making statistics stuff easily digestible. “I did reasonably well in the statistics module, but it didn’t offer much overview and structure; some lectures consisted of no less than 70 slides and the examples were rather drab. In the end, I made the summaries myself and shared them with fellow students. In the end, about 90 per cent of them were walking around with my work. I got really positive reactions. Some even said that I could ask money for it.”

No sooner said than done. His statistics exercise book Piraten, perziken en p-waarden was published in June and the English translation Pirates, Peaches and P-values saw the light of day at the end of last month. “What I wanted with this book, was to bridge the gap between statistics books that are so detailed that they are incapable of providing an overview, and those that have been simplified to the extent that they leave out a lot of important stuff just to make them accessible. The examples are often dry and theoretical. If X is this, and Y is that… terrible. My book starts with the student. I noticed that they usually want to understand things, not just accept them. By adding some humour, you can make it easier for students to remember the subject matter as well as lowering the threshold.”

ImageHandler.ashx-2Penders’ examples include orcs, zombies, pirates and cupcakes. One of them is the Dark Lord, who wants to make his orcs eat more vegetables instead of raw meat and mouldy bread, so that they can become more able-bodied. He tests two battalions that are instructed in different ways. After three months, the Dark Lord wants to measure the relation between the amount of vegetables that the orcs ate, the way in which they were instructed, and the resulting obedience of the orcs, because they are in the habit of becoming recalcitrant when they aren’t allowed to make their own choices. The ultimate question is, which statistical method should the Dark Lord use, and what are the possible pitfalls? “I often use a parody of well-known existing research. The ‘orc example’ is based on a study about healthy dietary habits. All the data that I use, is fictitious anyway.” Laughing: “Diederik Stapel (a former social psychologist and cheat who fabricated his own data, ed.) could learn a thing or two from it.”

Penders started writing on his handbook in the autumn of 2015. Since January he has been giving extra statistics lessons to students in Maastricht using the book as a basis. “There were times when I had sixty students taking the course. It’s quiet at the moment, but soon a large number of first-year students will get stuck and the numbers will increase again. My students are my most important proofreaders. I can test my examples on them; they have already brought a few of minor mistakes to my attention. I want to correct them in the next edition, but about another 700 copies need to be sold before that can happen.”

In order to realise this, he will have to get out there. On 20 October, one week before the exams, he will give a statistics lecture, on his own initiative, in the Pathé cinema in Maastricht. As far as promoting his book is concerned, he gets help from a number of readers and students. At the moment Piraten, perziken en p-waarden is at the top of list as best reviewed statistics book. “A must for anyone who is interested in statistics, but especially for those who want to experience statistics in a light-hearted way,” one grateful reader wrote. There is praise for the organisation of the material, its applicability, clarity, and the rich illustrations by his sister Chelsy Penders.

Whether he will write another exercise book after he has perfected his statistics book is uncertain: “Statistics is considered to be very difficult, but it is easy to convert into examples. That makes it a rewarding subject for me. To be honest, I have no idea how easy it would be to apply my approach to other subject fields. Besides, I found writing an exercise book very taxing. Maybe there will be a few extensions.”

9200000050864670He would prefer to return to his favourite form: writing a novel. His fantasy/science fiction novel Zwaluwhart was published in 2015. A whopper of a book with 576 pages that takes its reader to a completely invented universe. “The fact that I didn’t have any time for my novels last year, was awful. The novel – the great story – to me is actually the purest form of writing. All the story lines have to link up seamlessly and every word is important.” Penders doesn’t want to reveal much about the content of his next novel: “It will be an absurdist story with many psychological and politico-philosophical undertones, and a lot smaller than Zwaluwhart at any rate: both in terms of the number of pages and the setting of the story, which is a small village. The rough draft is finished, but when the novel will be published depends on how busy I will be this autumn.”

Vince Penders will give a lecture about his method in English at Pathé (Sphinxcour 1, Maastricht) on 20 October, 10:00 hrs. The lecture is freely accessible.

Pirates, Peaches and P-values is available online for €54.50. Dutch version Piraten, perziken en p-waarden is available online for €44.50.

This article was originally published in Observant. Read more interesting stories at


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