On Analytics, Statistics and Mathematics

2011 was a year of great change—a move back to the south for my husband’s new job, new school for our daughter, a transition to a new position in the JMP division of SAS (which I love), and several other changes requiring us to adapt.  Change is one thing we can count on.  When we consider change and the study of change or variation, I wonder why the perception of statistics as its own discipline seems to be so slow to change.  Since statistics pervades so many of the disciplines that comprise “analytics,” I think it important that statistics be given proper credit for its many contributions in so many disciplines.

Statistics is not a branch of mathematics. It is its own field of study, but is not often seen as such.  I repeat: statistics is not a branch of mathematics!

1951 is the earliest date associated with this quote from the February 2002 issue of Notices of the AMS, where John Tukey stated “Statistics is a science, not a branch of mathematics, but uses mathematical models as an essential tool.”  Several decades later David S. Moore, retired Professor of Statistics, Emeritus at Purdue University and author of several textbooks:  “The trouble with statistics is that it is not mathematics.”  Around the same time, noteworthy statistician Professor David Hand, Senior Research Investigator, Imperial College of London, wrote an article: Breaking Misconceptions—statistics and its Relationship to Mathematics, which further articulated why statistics is not a branch of mathematics.  While statistics makes use of mathematics, it is its own distinct field of study.

January’s featured blog of the American Statistical Association, The Big Mistake: Teaching stat as though it were math links to an article showing that the confusion continues.  I am all for increasing our numeracy, but being more quantitatively astute requires more than mathematics.  In addition, I am all for mathematicians and mathematics teachers recognizing the relevance and importance of statistics—and concur with the main points of “Arthur Benjamin’s formula for changing math education” TED talk:

- One important subject every high school graduate should know is statistics;

- Teaching statistics is more useful to most on a daily basis than calculus;

- If taught properly statistics can be a lot of fun!

Simon King, Upper School Mathematics Department Chair at Cary Academy, teaches advanced analytics and statistics.  He gave an amazing talk at JMP’s Discovery Summit last year and it’s heartening to see how much value the students and parents are getting from the exposure to statistical thinking.  Developing critical thinking skills for problem solving is really what statistics and analytics are all about.

In Jeremy Shapiro’s post last May, he included Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk Teaching kids real math.   His plea to make math fun and interactive so that teaching it would be more effective is relevant for teaching statistical concepts as well.  More than 50 percent of our brains are dedicated to supporting seeing.  Visually and interactively exploring the shape and structure of the data, seeing how variables are related, what patterns appear, etc. can only help in the pursuit of understanding more abstract concepts, not to mention the productivity gains of making faster sense of text and numbers visually.

The importance of distinguishing statistics from mathematics is to appreciate that we live in a world where both statistical and mathematical thinking are needed. Mathematics is largely considered a deterministic way of thinking whereas statistics is characterized as probabilistic/stochastic.  The subtitle of David Salsburg’s The Lady Tasting Tea:  How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century underscores this important distinction and the shift in view from philosophical determinism to one of embracing statistical approximation.  Change and uncertainty are ubiquitous.  Making better decisions in the face of uncertainty is largely what statistics—and to a great extent analytics—is all about.

Statistics has been called the science of science, the language of science, the logic of measurement, the science of information gathering, the science of learning from data, and many other things—all of these things are core to problem-solving / analytics.  Let us not call statistics a branch of mathematics—doing so limits the perceived value and marginalizes the many contributions statistics and statisticians have made and continue to make in solving real-world problems.  Change brings opportunity.  If statistics can be more fully recognized for the unique and important discipline that it is, we will all benefit.


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