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Not Your Average Statistician

Marie Davidian at window of SAS Hall.

For as long as Marie Davidian can remember, statistics has been a dreaded field. When she tells people she’s a statistician, she doesn’t usually get warm responses. The statistics professor thinks the aversion stems from how poorly the discipline was once taught.

“Traditionally it wasn’t taught as a subject that was really useful,” she says.

But thanks to a major data explosion, statistics is getting a lot of attention in the scientific and popular media. In the past year the Boston Globe, American Journal of Science and Nature have devoted entire editions to data and described the field as “hot.” A watershed event occurred in 2009 when Google chief economist Hal Varian described statisticians as this decade’s “sexy professional.” And dead-on predictions of the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections by statistician Nate Silver were hailed as genius.

“So now we are sexy—it’s great— and this helps raise awareness of how important statistics is,” Davidian says.

Marie Davidian working at computer
Marie Davidian joins some of the country’s top bloggers with a regular column on The Huffington Post website.

Big Data, Big Audience

In January she began a one-year term as president of the American Statistical Association, a scientific and educational community with over 18,000 members in more than 90 countries worldwide. ASA and four other major statistical organizations have designated 2013 the International Year of Statistics to capitalize on all the recent media attention.

To enhance this global effort, Davidian took up an offer from The Huffington Post and began writing a regular blog on statistics this month. It’s a plum assignment. The progressive news site draws more than 50 million unique visitors and logs more than eight million comments a month, making it a more popular site than the New York Times.

The Huffington Post editors recruited Davidian last month after she and other ASA board members were interviewed for the Boston Globe article. Her instructions were to blog 1,200 words on anything related to statistics, twice a month.

“I was amazed and delighted,” she says.

In Davidian’s first post, she alerts readers that this year is indeed the International Year of Statistics and recounts the many ways that statistics are important. For instance, statistics allow experts to predict elections, design and analyze clinical trials and assist with purchase suggestions for online shoppers. Complex surveys–including the U.S. census–are designed and conducted by statisticians, she writes.

The federal government, unbeknownst to many, has 14 statistical agencies, she adds. And scientific breakthroughs, like the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, depend on statistical models.

The many applications of statistics have changed the way the discipline is taught. Professors now routinely pepper their lectures with discussions of media reports involving statistics, assign data analysis projects to teams of students and bring other hands-on activities into the classroom to demonstrate the relevance of statistics to students’ everyday lives.

Bright Future for Statisticians

Davidian loves writing about her field and encourages more people to pursue advanced statistics degrees. There’s real momentum growing now in academia, she says, noting that applications to NC State’s Department of Statistics, one of the country’s oldest and largest, are at record highs.

“There are so many opportunities for statisticians today, especially those with an advanced degree—doors will open for you, even in a tough economy.”

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  1. Your approach to teaching of statistics is perfect. When I was a graduate student in the N. C. State College, my guide and mentor, the Late Professor R. L. Anderson always told me “Vasant, learn to apply the statistics that you study.” Professor Anderson reminded me the words of an Indian Scholar and a Philosopher ” the ideal must be achieved through the actual.” His words still ring in my ears after 53 years. If my wife and I ever make a trip to US, we will certainly visit the N. C. State College. V. L. Mote

  2. No, the real problem in the lack of understanding of or comfort with statistics is not that math and statistics are not tied together early in the education cycle (although more math should be taught earlier). It is that the focus in the teaching of statistics is too often exclusively on the math, ignoring the appropriate interpretation of statistical results. Witness the number of articles in the journal Science in which statistically significant results are interpreted as g importance without addressing issues of sampling method, sample size (directly related to statistical significance), or, particularly, the magnitude of results/effect sizes relative to the magnitude necessary for theoretical or practical importance. Too many mathematicians teach stats without exploring the philosophical base for the meaningful conceptual interpretation of results. That makes stats seem like an abstract mathematical exercise, and not of interest or comprehensible, rather than a tool for understanding reality. I suspect that given the audiences for which Marie Davidian writes, she understands that issue well.

  3. Statistics is such a great area of study yet it is truly sad that the vast majority of Americans have no grasp of even the most basic concepts of the field. The word statistics scares most people away and brings to mind images of stuffy sitcom types in short sleeve white shirts and skinny black ties. Most cultures around the world that excel in education tie statistics into math classes at very early stages in childhood education. But here in the US its kept seperated until much later in a student’s educational journey. This needs to change.