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Damned Souls and Statistics (2011)
Robert Dawson
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

A statistician sells her soul to the devil in exchange for guaranteed tenure, but redeems herself by creating a cleverly useless confidence interval.

I like the part about the realization during her Ph.D. thesis defense that there were some things she forgot to check. Indeed, that is the way a thesis defense works and feels. The similar scene of her receiving tenure, however, seemed odd to me as I do not think there are any universities where tenure is assigned in that way. (Correct me if I'm mistaken. Indeed, at a Ph.D. defense the committee that has just finished asking you questions comes out into the hall after a brief private meeting and tells you their decision. But, the tenure process is nothing like that. At every university I know tenure is achieved by submitting a huge "packet" of documents which has to go through several different committees and levels of administration before you are notified -- usually by letter -- about the outcome months later.)

The concept of a confidence interval is apparently very difficult. I've never understood why because it seems quite simple to me, but many of my students and even authors of research papers using them seem to misinterpret what they mean. [For the record: The significance of a confidence interval (a, b) with confidence level C is that some population parameter, like the average of some quantity over all members of the population, has a probability of C of being between the numbers a and b.]

I'm sure the author (and the character) understand what a confidence interval actually is, but here the definition is intentionally twisted, to humorous effect. The alternative definition adopted in this fantasy to save the protagonist's soul is certainly closer than many of the misconceptions I've encountered before. However, I'm not sure the world needed another way to misunderstand this fundamental tool of inferential statistics. Plus, I'm afraid the whole scenario in this story struck me as being far too contrived.

Personally, I preferred Dawson's similar but more recent story "Ladies' Night" in which another female statistician (almost) outsmarts a con artist. But, I'm sure that's just a matter of taste.

This short story was published on in two parts in August 2011. I am grateful to Larry Lesser for bringing Dawson's fiction to my attention.

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Works Similar to Damned Souls and Statistics
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Devil and Simon Flagg by Arthur Porges
  2. Hell of a Fix by Matthew Hughes
  3. Ladies' Night by Robert Dawson
  4. The Devil a Mathematician Would Be by A.J. Lohwater
  5. I of Newton by Joe Haldeman
  6. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors: Book One in the Risen Kingdoms by Curtis Craddock
  7. Lost by Tamora Pierce
  8. Matrices by Steven Nightingale
  9. On the Occasion Of Your Graduation by Robert Dawson
  10. Incomplete Proofs by John Chu
Ratings for Damned Souls and Statistics:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)

MotifAcademia, Proving Theorems, Female Mathematicians,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)