If you’ve got a few minutes to chat with Marc Huber, don’t miss the opportunity. He has an interesting take on the human side of statistics. As a senior analytical training consultant for SAS, he combines an impressive background in psychology with a passion for math to teach customers around the world how to solve their toughest problems.
On a lighter note, he’s not afraid to go to battle on the SAS You Tube Stat Wars series. As a result, I’m guessing he never runs out of unique predictions to share – like whether a female or male will likely do better in their high school SATs, or who would make the best stunt man in the next big Hollywood blockbuster. Read Marc’s story and also be sure to read the rest of the SAS Loves Stats series as we focus on the International Year of Statistics.
What do you do at SAS?
I’m a senior analytical training consultant. I write and teach statistics courses to customers using SAS software. These courses can be taken online, in the classroom or onsite at a customer location. Because SAS has such a diverse customer base, I am constantly learning myself while teaching those statistical concepts and modeling techniques.
What’s your educational background?
UNC-Chapel Hill is my alma mater. I have a BA in psychology, an MA in Quantitative Psychology (Psychometrics), all coursework toward my PhD, and an MSW in mental health social work.
During and after my first graduate degree, I worked at Duke University’s department of Aging and Human Development. I did data entry, data cleaning, data management, and eventually statistical analysis on a long term multi-site study of normal human aging, known as EPESE (Established Populations for the Epidemiologic Studies of the Elderly). I studied social work during the last two years of that job and had intended on pursuing a job in social work after I received my MSW. Instead I accepted a position as a statistician at UNC’s department of biostatistics, in a research arm known as the CSCC (Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center). There I worked on multi-site clinical trials and epidemiological surveys sponsored by the government. I also published research papers on topics such as the effect of cognitive behavioral therapy on the risk of recurrent heart attacks, and the effect of certain drug therapies on the risk of returning to active alcoholism.
What about statistics appeals to you?
My interest in – and study of – psychology was all about my desire to know what makes people do, say and feel as they do. I wanted to understand. But the more I studied psychology, the less convinced I was that people could be broken down into categories or that behavior could be predicted. I gravitated toward statistics because I had always had an interest and aptitude in math. There was a comfort level in knowing that math seemed predictable. If I knew which tools to use, I could answer more questions. However, reducing people to numbers seemed to contrary to my basic philosophy on the world. People are so complex that we couldn’t possibly dissect a person’s mind to perfectly predict their behaviors or feelings. I struggled with how my beliefs about psychology and math were sometimes at odds against each other. Then something clicked.
My manager at the time, Bob Lucas, casually mentioned a quote by a famous statistician, George Box. He said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I don’t know why, but that made what I was doing have a clear purpose for the first time. My job is to use data to describe or make predictions about things that couldn’t possibly be perfectly described or predicted. When I stopped comparing the knowledge gained from statistics against the standard of “perfection” – and instead against knowledge that I would have had without my statistical model – I could see the value.
Can you comment on the importance of statistics in education?
People can be so easily manipulated today if they don’t have at least a basic understanding of statistics. Advertisements make statistical claims that often go unquestioned. Social media channels funnel information back and forth to promote marketing. Medical research reported in the news can be easily misinterpreted out of context. Adults and children have a lot of information thrown at them, as analytics plays a bigger and bigger role in all of our lives.
Being able to interpret statistics helps people to make educated decisions about what they want to do, and what they believe to be true or false. We listen to statistics when politicians try to convince us to vote for them or support their initiatives. We listen to statistics when we shop for a car. We listen to statistics in the doctor’s office – and then afterwards, when we research what the doctor said to us. I think that a fundamental understanding of statistics is as essential since it is so pervasive in our lives.
What advice would you give to students studying statistics today?
Think about your favorite things in life – and what interests you the most. You will likely find a role for statistics within those choices. Once you start playing with the data related to your interests, you’ll learn quickly. Data is everywhere. Just be sure to look beyond the obvious.
Do you have a funny or interesting story to share about statistics?
I’m an actor in a new video series on SAS’ You Tube channel called Stat Wars. In each episode, I go head-to-head with fellow SAS instructor Danny Modlin, as we battle it out over finding the best answers to questions ranging from predicting SAT scores to finding the best Hollywood stunt men for the next blockbuster movie. Of course, it's all pretty silly because in the end we always learn that there are lots of ways to do the same thing in statistics. It’s a fun way to generate discussions around statistical analysis. My poor Jewish mother never raised her children to become actors. Don't worry, Mom. Statistics still pay the bills. Besides, I think Danny's the one destined to get an invitation to compete on Dancing with the Stars.
Do you have a favorite statistics blog or journal?
I like the SAS Training Post and get a kick out of Catherine Truxillo’s ability to maintain a fun and interesting presence there. There are some interesting discussion forums on the SAS Community site. I admit to also following content at Mplus Discussion, where I learned more about structural equations modeling from questions posted to Bengt O. Muthen and Linda K. Muthen.
Are there any other hobbies or interests you’d like to share?
I’m a cancer survivor and have done a lot of work with Camp Mak-a-Dream in Gold Creek, Montana, as well as the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. While I’ve been active in mentoring and tutoring programs in the past, I am always open to finding the right fit in that area. And I love the travel that my job affords!