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.