Posts written by Rachel Fewster (1)


Rachel Fewster joined the department in 1999, following degrees from St Andrews (PhD Statistics) and Cambridge (MA Mathematics).

October 21, 2011

Our RWC 2015 team was born in March 1987

Were you born between January and March in 1987? Congratulations – you’re picked for the RWC 2015 New Zealand team!

This rather ridiculous (and untrue) piece of information I just made up was concocted by examining some data and coming to an unsubstantiated conclusion. I was inspired to do this because I read recently in a British tabloid that one should “Give birth in March for a pilot” and “Victoria Beckham’s [daughter] likely to become bricklayer”. Finding the exact source of the study from the Office of National Statistics was troublesome but instead led me to a lot of advice for when to get pregnant so your child could be a dentist.

Without seeing the original study we cannot say what got twisted around between when the UK Census was collected and when the tabloids hit the news stands. The methodological insight that we get from the Daily Mail suggests that the monthly professions-of-choice are those “with the greatest percentage above the monthly average”. Well, pick a bunch of numbers and there will be a biggest one! It doesn’t necessarily condemn your January-born aspiring sheet-metal worker to the life of a GP.

A further concern arises from multiple comparisons. The more things you look for, the more “oddities” or coincidences you’ll find – none of them have to mean anything at all. Compare 19 professions against 12 months and that’s 228 chances to find something a little unusual. You’re sure to go away with a juicy collection of headlines for these pains. Even further, oddities in the statistical sense can be decidedly underwhelming in practical terms, if we are dealing with huge numbers of respondents as in the UK census. It might be statistically all-but-certain that “Spring birth conveys height advantage” but the height advantage in question turns out to be only 6 mm.

One place where we can see a real and well-studied effect from month of birth is sport. Sport is seasonal and, unlike dentistry, has a very clear starting time every year. If sports are organised by age-group and you are among the oldest in the group, you have almost a year’s advantage over the youngest. For children, a year is a big deal in terms of size, physical coordination, and maturity – and this advantage snowballs throughout childhood as you get picked for the best teams, practise more, play against better opponents, and on and on. Ad Dudink examined Dutch and English soccer players in 1994, following in the footsteps of Barnsley and Thompson who examined Canadian hockey players in 1985 and 1988.

As for whether you’ll be a dentist or a bricklayer, it is possible that this can be affected by birth month, because the age differential in the school year affects children’s academic outcomes in a similar (but less drastic) way to sports teams. In the UK, children start school in September, so September-born children have a year’s maturity advantage over their August-born classmates. This is not a temporary effect: studies have shown that the advantage/disadvantage continues to school-leaving exams and university.

In New Zealand our school season begins in February, so don’t expect the same education outcomes to birth month misconnections as the United Kingdom.

But how about them All Blacks?

I extracted the place and date of birth of each of the team members listed for the All Blacks and French teams from the Rugby World Cup 2011 website, which I then ran through sed, R and finally dumped into Excel.

Then I separated the players out into hemisphere of birth, as each hemisphere has a different season start. All the French players were born in the northern hemisphere, and all the All Blacks were born in the southern hemisphere, making my life a bit easier.

I’ve plotted them here. French (blue) above the equator, and All Blacks (black) below:

Graph of data

Team members by quarter of birth and hemisphere, NZL vs FRA

Eyeballing that does suggest some stories about when to be born if you want to play for the All Blacks or the French, but being born in January to March isn’t going to get you straight onto the All Black squad. There are many other factors that influence your selection:

Eat a healthy diet, high in Weet-Bix, exercise often, and most importantly, you can increase your chances of being on the squad by starting to play rugby.

A few references and citations for further reading:

^ Jessica Utts (2003). What Educated Citizens Should Know About Statistics and Probability. The American Statistician. May 1, 2003, 57(2): 74-79. doi:10.1198/0003130031630

^ Weber GW, Prossinger H, Seidler H (1998). Height depends on month of birth. Nature, 391(6669), 754-755 doi:10.1038/35781

^ Dudink A (1994). Birth date and sporting success. Nature, 368(6472), 592.

^ Barnsley RH, Thompson AH, Barnsley PE (1985). Hockey success and birth-date: The relative age effect. Journal of the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Nov.-Dec., 23-28.

^ Barnsley RH, Thompson AH (1988). Birthdate and success in minor hockey: The key to the N.H.L.. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 20, 167-176.

Wiseman, R (2008). Quirkology: The Curious Science Of Everyday Lives, 28-29 ISBN: 9780330448093

Back in 2008 the All Black squad was also dominated by January – March births:­2008/12/07/31-december/