David Spiegelhalter bigraphy, stories - British mathematician

David Spiegelhalter : biography

16 August 1953 -

David John Spiegelhalter OBE, FRS (born 16 August 1953) is a distinguished British statistician. In 2007 he was elected Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory, University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. Spiegelhalter is an ISI highly cited researcher and is the 34th most-cited mathematical scientist in the world over the last ten years .


Spiegelhalter studied at the University of Oxford (Bachelor of Arts 1974) and University College London. He gained his Master of Science 1975 and Doctor of Philosophy 1978, supervised by Adrian Smith.


Spiegelhalter was research assistant in Brunel University in 1976 and then visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, 1977–8. After his PhD, he was a research assistant for the Royal College of Physicians; he was based at the University of Nottingham, where his PhD supervisor, Adrian Smith, had been appointed a professor.

From 1981 he was at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge. He has been an honorary lecturer at the University of Hong Kong since 1991. He has also been a consultant for GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and the World Anti-Doping Agency. He played a leading role in the public inquiries into children's heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary and the murders by Harold Shipman. Between 2007 and 2012 he divided his work between the Statistical Laboratory (three fifths) and the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit (two fifths). He left the MRC in March 2012http://www.mrc-bsu.cam.ac.uk/People/formerstaff.html and now works full time at the Statistical Laboratory.

In 2012, Spiegelhalter hosted the BBC Four documentary Tails You Win: The Science of Chance which described the application of probability in everyday life. He also presented a 2013 Cambridge Science Festival talk, How to Spot a Shabby Statistic at the Babbage Lecture Theatre in Cambridge.


  • 1975 Fellow, Royal Statistical Society
  • 1985 Guy Medal in Bronze, Royal Statistical Society
  • 1989 Award for Outstanding Application Paper, American Statistical Association
  • 1993 Chartered Statistician, Royal Statistical Society
  • 1994 Guy Medal in Silver, Royal Statistical Society
  • 1994 Honorary Doctorate, University of Aalborg, Denmark
  • 2005 Fellow, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London
  • 2006 Received an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours
  • 2006 Appointed Honorary Professor of Biostatistics at University of Cambridge
  • 2009 Weldon Memorial Prize and Medal

Research interests

Spiegelhalter's research interests are in

  • Bayesian approach to clinical trials, expert systems and complex modelling and epidemiology.
  • Graphical models of conditional independence. He wrote several papers in the 1980s that showed how probability could be incorporated into expert systems, a problem that seemed intractable at the time. Spiegelhalter showed that while frequentist probability did not lend itself to expert systems, Bayesian probability most certainly did.
  • Statistical software.Markov Chain Monte Carlo in Practice, W.R. Gilks, S. Richardson and D.J. Speigelhalter. Chapman & Hall. 1996. ISBN 0-412-05551-1 In the 1990s Spiegelhalter led the Medical Research Council team that developed WinBUGS ("Bayesian analysis Using Gibbs Sampling"), a statistical-modeling system allowing hierarchical prior distributions. WinBUGS and its successor OpenBUGS specifies graphical models using acyclic directed graphs whose nodes are random variables, which are updated using Gibbs sampling (an updating method for Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) simulation). Earlier Bayesian software had required that the probability distribution for the observed data be an exponential family and that the prior be its conjugate distribution. Allowing flexible choices of prior distributions simplified hierarchical modeling and helped to promote multilevel models, which became widely used in epidemiology and education.
  • General issues in clinical trials, including cluster randomisation, meta-analysis and ethical monitoring.
  • Monitoring and comparing clinical and public-health outcomes and their associated publication as performance indicators.
  • Public understanding of risk, including promoting concepts such as the micromort (a one in a million chance of death) and microlife (a 30 minute reduction of life expectancy). Media reporting of statistics, risk and probability and the wider conception of uncertainty as going beyond what is measured to model uncertainty, the unknown and the unmeasurable.
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Living octopus

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