Friday, November 11, 2005

Does Statistics have to be boring?

We had a visit to our department recently by Professor Joel Best. Unfortunately, I missed the lecture because of (yet another!) Jewish holiday, but I did not miss the ensuing talk in the play pen we call the Wharton School Stat department. Joel's essential point is that while statistical literacy is essential and irrefutably important it is nevertheless unloved and disrespected. Futhermore, Joel speculates, that this is unlikely to change since there is no obvious constituency that can take ownership of this problem. I aim to remedy this. To do this, we must confront the problem head on: Statistics is boring. Come on, fellows, come clean. Compare our world to other mathematical disciplines. Not looking good, eh? How about computer science or electrical engineering? Do we measure up? These worlds are sparkling with orginality; with important problems solved with complex and elegant techniques. Yet statistics has a leg up on all these fields because it is not relegated to esoteric domains. Statistics is RELEVANT and not just to farmers measuring crop yield, scientists studying worms or doctors administering treatments. Statistics are at the heart of some of the most interesting intellectual debates of our age. Yet, in our classes, textbooks and conversations, we assiduously avoid these topics. Why? Because as professors of statistics, we argue, it is not our place to teach global warming or sex discrimination. Our place is the t-test and the central limit theorem. So we limit ourselves to the straightforward and the dull. I'm falling asleep just thinking about it.


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