Jeff Witmer Wins 2024 Chauvenet Prize for Mathematics Writing

Longtime professor lauded for exploration of “Simpson’s paradox.”

June 3, 2024

Communications Staff

Jeff Witmer.
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Oberlin Professor of Statistics Jeff Witmer won the 2024 Chauvenet Prize, presented by the Mathematical Association of America for an exceptional expository article on a topic related to math.

Witmer was honored for his paper “Simpson’s Paradox, Visual Displays, and Causal Diagrams,” which was published in the American Mathematical Monthly in 2021. The award was announced in late May, as Witmer was concluding his 38th year of teaching at Oberlin.

“Simpson’s Paradox” refers to the phenomenon that inequality can hold for several groups of data, but reverse itself when the groups are combined into a single data set.

According to the MAA: “Witmer’s article not only nicely illustrates the phenomenon but also shows the reader a useful technique for avoiding it: namely the use of causal diagrams. These diagrams give a methodical way to clarify the hypothesized causal link that is being tested and therefore determine which is the most appropriate way to look at the data.”

As an educator, I am always trying to find ways to help others understand important concepts—and to help myself better understand them. When I stumble upon an idea...the excitement energizes me.”

Witmer’s paper incorporates numerous real-life illustrations of Simpson’s paradox, including baseball statistics, airline on-time arrival rates, and Titanic survivors.

“I was shocked, but delighted, to learn that I was receiving the Chauvenet Prize,” he says. “Simpson’s paradox has long been an interest of mine, and I was happy to write a paper that pulled together what I’ve learned about this topic over many years. But I never expected anything beyond the satisfaction of seeing my thoughts published.

“As an educator, I am always trying to find ways to help others understand important concepts—and to help myself better understand them. When I stumble upon an idea, like the BK-plot, mosaic plot, or directed acyclic graph (DAG)—three key components of my paper—the excitement energizes me.

“And to be clear: I didn’t create any of those ideas,” Witmer adds. “I merely borrowed them from others and used them in my paper.”

First presented in 1925, the Chauvenet Prize is named for William Chauvenet, a former math professor at the United States Naval Academy and a leading architect of the institution.

Learn more about the MAA and the Chauvenet Prize at the MAA website. Witmer’s paper can be accessed via Oberlin College Libraries’ Digital Commons.

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