The Numbers Game TV show

Photo: National Geographic Channels

If the mere idea of a show about statistics has you reaching for the remote, stop! Take it from a math-averse right-brainer, “The Numbers Game” is not only educational but surprising and fun. Premiering March 24 on National Geographic, the series uses interactive on-the-street experiments to explore scenarios that will allow viewers to determine their capacity for heroism and deception, and to learn how gullible, desirable and superstitious they are. Aided by guest experts, statistician Jake Porway presides over this new addition to Nat Geo’s Engage Your Brain programming with humor — a quality evident in the following conversation.

MNN: How does a data scientist end up hosting a TV show?

Jake Porway: What else am I going to do with a Ph.D. in statistics? Sit around and do math all day? In seriousness, my TV break came as a result of being a National Geographic Emerging Explorer through my work with DataKind, an organization I founded to use data science to tackle the world’s most challenging problems. I spend much of my time in that role explaining the power of information and data to people, so “The Numbers Game” was a natural fit for me. It’s another avenue in which I can communicate to the public about how data and information can shape their lives for the better.

Things that we used to think of as “nerdy” — computers, math, science — are cool now. We’re surrounded by technology and data that make our lives better, so we don’t think of computer programmers as acid-washed-jean-wearing outcasts anymore (at least not exclusively). We think of them as the creators of Facebook and Snapchat. The fact that “The Big Bang Theory” is the most popular show on television says something, even if it makes all nerds look like stereotypes. We are not all Sheldon! Nevertheless, that trend shows that the public wants a way to make sense of all of this new data, new scientific insights and new technological findings, so “The Numbers Game” is a perfect avenue to make that accessible to the public. Not to say that looks aren’t a big part of it too. People dig the “male Ellen Degeneres” look I’ve got going on.

How did the show come about? Was it your idea? Or did you audition?

The show was the National Geographic Channel’s idea and, after seeing me speak at the National Geographic Explorers Symposium about DataKind in 2012, they asked me if I would audition to be the host of the show. I guess I must have had a good audition, because here I am. Between you and me, I think I’m just one of the few statisticians they found who could maintain eye contact.

What does a National Geographic Emerging Explorer do? 

I see Emerging Explorers as continuing the proud tradition of exploration and committing themselves to pushing the boundaries of human understanding. That was, I believe, why I was selected to be one. My passion is to help explore our world through data and analytics, and my nonprofit, DataKind, was built to use data to solve the world’s toughest problems. We build teams that do everything from analyzing human rights data to prevent future abuses to using municipal data to predict and prevent future fires in cities. I’m hugely honored to have been selected as an Emerging Explorer and hope that my work can live up to the proud history National Geographic has set of ceaseless curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.

Many people hate math. Persuade them why they should watch, and why they’ll find the show fascinating.

Ooh, that sentence makes my skin crawl! “I hate math.” It’s so defeatist! Truth be told, I never much cared for math growing up, so I want to help people come to love it the way I eventually did, by making it relatable. “The Numbers Game” recreates studies and findings from statistics, science and math in an accessible and engaging way. Through interactive games, recreations of science experiments and demos on the street, we show people how math and statistics affect their daily lives and how they can use them to be healthier, wealthier and happier. The show’s a lot of fun, and I guarantee that even people who say, “I hate math” will love this show.

For example, this "Numbers Game" video explores the Bystander Effect:

How does the format work?

Each episode features a certain topic, such as what it takes to be a hero, or the science of persuasion. Throughout each episode, we recreate experiments and present findings that the audience can use to influence their own lives. For example, people often think that their physical looks are what make them most desirable. In the attractiveness episode, however, we reveal that statistics show sense of humor is far more important than physical looks, so pick up a few jokes before you go dropping a few pounds. In another episode we show the positive side of superstition when we ask people to throw baseballs at a dunk tank that they believe are “lucky” balls. Just believing the balls are lucky helped people throw more accurately (much to the chagrin of our producer who was in the tank). The point of each episode is to enlighten people to the science that governs their everyday activities and give them information they can use to live a healthier, happier life.

How do you see your role in it?

My role as host is to help draw the threads of the experiments on the show together and give people the key findings they can use to live better lives. As a data scientist and in my work at DataKind, I love communicating complicated scientific concepts in easy-to-digest ways, so I see my role as being the “so why does this matter to you...” guy. Hopefully I also keep people entertained enough to stay through the ads. 

What are some of the most surprising statistics and facts we’ll learn?

Oh man, there are so many. One really useful one is that employees were most productive when their bosses gave them seven positive comments for every one negative comment. As an overly apologetic person, my rate as director of DataKind is probably closer to 30 to 1, so I’ve got to bring that down. Another of my favorites is that, when asking for a favor, there’s one word you can use that will boost your chances of the person saying “yes” to over 90 percent. You’ll have to watch the show to learn that one though!

Who are some of the experts participating?

We have fantastic experts come on the show to offer insights throughout the season. In one episode I spend the day with a survivalist who teaches me the numbers behind survival, something I desperately need, because, let’s face it, I’m not exactly going to get by on brawn alone. I also spend time with Wayne Hoffman, a mentalist who shows us how statistics actually form the foundation of a lot of so-called “psychic” readings.

Anything surprising happen while taping segments with the public?

We certainly had a lot of surprising moments that can’t be shown on TV (this is a family show, after all), but perhaps most surprising were the number of people out there who seemingly have superpowers they never knew they had. I watched a 13-year-old girl walk up and solve a brainteaser that took me three days to solve. And I had help. In another segment, a pair of college kids figured out how to make a fire extinguisher out of basic household ingredients in a few seconds flat. I’ve taken down all of these people’s names so I can call them for help if I’m in danger.

What do you like best about the man-on-the-street element? 

What’s not to like about the man-on-the-street element? We’re interacting with real people for a lot of these experiments — they’re not actors — so almost anything can happen. That unpredictability and reality make those segments a lot of fun. Moreover, there’s a genuine glee you see in people’s faces when they take part in one of these experiments as they “get” the takeaway. It’s really rewarding and a ton of fun.

Speaking of takeaway, are there practical applications viewers can use?

Every episode is full of practical applications, from negotiating your salary to make more money to harnessing superstition to succeed at your job. The real takeaway is that there is data all around us to help us gain insights into how to live better lives, and the sooner we start taking advantage of it, the happier we’ll all be! Beyond the show, people can also get involved using data for the greater good with us at DataKind.

Check out another example of what you'll learn on the show with this segment called Reaction and Awareness:

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