A year for statistics

You may have heard the news that 2013 is the International Year of Statistics, a wordwide celebration of the contributions of statistics, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Nate Silver’s near-perfect prediction of the presidential election and popular fare such as the recent Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt-starring film Moneyball have illustrated the power of statistical methodology to the general public. Yes, world, there is a method to our madness.

My own statistical journey is likely pretty similar to many statisticians. Often at social gatherings, familiar questions would arise such as “What are you studying?” or “What do you do for a living?” When I replied that I was a statistician, I was met with one of the following responses:

  • “I had to take a statistics class once. I hated it.”
  • “Oh… well, we sure need people like you.” (This one was usually said with a wide smile and nodding like I had said something outrageous)
  • “Fantastic! I’ve got this data I need some opinions on….”

Granted, the last one was much rarer, though it did occur on occasion.

My degree is actually in biostatistics, and I learned very quickly that this word was even more off-putting than the word statistics. To get around this, my wife and I spent a lot of time coming up with a short sound bite to explain my job to family members so that they could, in turn, explain what I did every day. “Richard, yeah, he is one of those biomedical statisticians. He applies statistics to biological data at a pharmaceutical company.” Sounds terrible, but this seemed to avert the blank, empty stares. Now that I’m at JMP, I currently use “I develop software for visualizing and analyzing safety outcomes in clinical trials.” So far, so good. Usually the response is: “I hear SAS is a great company! Can you get me a job there?”

My favorite statistics-related “incident” occurred at the Canadian border as some friends and I were traveling to the St. Lawrence Seaway to scuba dive. After the border agent had reviewed our passports, the typical screening questions began. Why are you coming to Canada? How long will stay? What do you do for a living? For this last question, the replies came out as straightforward as our other responses. Physical therapist. Pharmacist. Dive instructor. When it was my turn, I puffed up my chest with pride and replied, “Statistician!”

Without missing a beat, the agent responded “A what?”

Slightly deflated, I repeated, “I’m a statistician.” Then things got weird.

“You’re an anesthetist?”

“No, no. I am a statistician. I work with numbers.”

“Oh.” Long pause. “Do you work for the government?”

Thankfully, this embarrassing exchange ended soon after, though it provided lots of entertainment for the diving weekend. Richard, are you an anesthetist? Why, yes! I put people to sleep with numbers!

This is an exciting time for statistics and statisticians, and one we must take full advantage of. By nature, this will be challenging for many of us; we tend to be an introverted lot. And our audience may not be the most receptive -- many people appear to have an aversion to math, doubly so when combined with Greek letters. But I remain hopeful that the typical and unusual reactions to the word statistics will become less common in the future.

I encourage you to share in a comment any humorous reactions you've gotten to telling someone that you're a statistician.

Happy new year (of statistics)!

tags: Life Sciences, Statistics, Year of Statistics

10 Comments

  1. Alfredo Hernández
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I thought I was alone with this professional quest. Being a statististician place us apriori as modern positivists, however we are likely as well to join the modern critical action learning approach, as our science has to do with framing problems, researching, and validating results.

    Best regards, Alfredo.

  2. Posted January 3, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Until recently (3 days ago) I was spending best hours of my day at the faculty, being in contact with undergrads. Two prevailing themes emerged:

    - Oh, that's nice .
    - great! I'll come to you when I have some data to analyze.

  3. Richard Giambrone
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Anesthetist. "I put people to sleep with numbers." I think that is very funny. Good story. Thanks.

  4. Posted January 6, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    I laughed out loud with your post! I had my share of embarassing moments too, and it was even worse, since my first bachelor´s degree was in Math! I finally solved the problem - when people ask me what I do for I living, I say I am an Economist (also true, since 2010 or so), and everybody is satisfied, except those who have known me forever...

  5. Posted January 8, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I am almost too embarrassed to relay this encounter. In 2008 I was checking into a chain motel in Virginia, when the night clerk asked me what I did. Being a biostatistician, I explained that I designed and analyzed data for clinical trials. He responded that it sounded as boring as studying the "sex life of a door knob". I had to write that absurd comment down, so I would not forget it. When I am having a challenging day, I look at it and laugh!

  6. Posted January 14, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    And I thought this only happened here in Brazil! :)

  7. Prof. Saisree
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    Enjoyed thoroughly! you have a flare for writing as well!. yes, same here, I thought it only happened here in India.:) A few years back, before Diwali, Festival of Lights , celebrated in India, a group of students from my Post grad class asked me, "
    ma'am, how do you celebrate Diwali?" to which I said " like any other Indian"
    Ma'am, we thought it could be different because you are a statistician and a statistician's approach is never NORMAL. and a lot of assumptions needed to make it NORMAL :))

  8. Elizabeth Bautista Elizabeth
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Excellent and funny story!

  9. Gerald Smith
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    This was a funny, but true article. I am an undergraduate in statistics and every time I respond to the question, "What is your major?" with "I study statistics." After the initial shock that they just meet some that actually studies statistics I usually get the next response of "You must be smart! You should tutor me next semester when I need to take statistics." I just usually laugh it off then jokingly say that I charge $30 an hour.

  10. Vishal
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Really nice and funny story. This is frequent incidence happening with Statistician. People feel comfertable to hear you person from mathematics rather than statistics.

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