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May 27, 2014

Statisticians: harbingers of doom?

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s official. We’ve reached the midpoint of the International Year of Statistics. Or as Bon Jovi would put it: “Whoa… we’re halfway there… whoa--OH!  livin’ on a prayer.” (Seriously, it’s hard not to sing this song when you reach the halfway point of anything.) If you somehow missed the '80s, here’s a chance to catch up.

I recently had the opportunity to enjoy a bit of time off to rest and recharge my mental batteries. It was a good chance to catch up on some books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. One book, or short story to be more accurate, contained a particularly enlightening paragraph that has some bearing on statistics:  The Call of Cthulu, written by H.P. Lovecraft and published in 1928 in Weird Tales magazine. If you’re not familiar with the story, it describes the awakening of an ancient winged and tentacled creature that was set to bring about the end of life as we know it.

Still with me? The above description may not be your cup of tea, but the introductory paragraph is quite fascinating:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light onto the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Statisticians play a key role in the sciences, uncovering relationships between seemingly unrelated factors, describing complex processes and predicting important outcomes with parsimonious models; our gift is finding the signal amidst the noise. So at best, statisticians will rescue humanity from a “placid island of ignorance.” At worst, statisticians will bring about the apocalypse.

I’m a bit more “glass half full” than Mr. Lovecraft. I view our ever-increasing understanding of the world and its mysteries with excitement, not fear. We have indeed come a long way. But for every question we seem to answer, several new ones rise to take its place. So it seems unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, that we’ll uncover something so overwhelming or terrifying that we run screaming for the hills. Perhaps the most frightening thing we’ll face is the realization of how much more we have yet to learn.

In the meantime, there is a lot of work to do, especially for statisticians. For example, consider personalized medicine. How do we locate the genetic markers that influence disease? How do we identify individuals who will experience the most benefit from a new drug? How can we best alter the treatment course of patients when their outcome changes? Statistics and statisticians are involved in solving all of these problems. And there is plenty more where that came from. (Thank you, Variability.)

So enjoy the remainder of the International Year of Statistics. Spread the word. The end will be here before you know it.

Community Member

Brian Greiner wrote:

Ia! Ia! Statistics fhtagn.

[with apologies to Mr. Zink and Mr. Lovecraft]

Richard Zink wrote:

Well played, sir. Well played.

Community Member

James Cawse wrote:

"The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before"

- Thorsten Veblen

Community Member

Laura Wright wrote:

Doom, gloom, catastrophe, and plague are subjects of endlessly fascination. The curious seek understanding while others turn away in distaste. Blissful denial is a temporary comfort, which provides no protection from a frightening reality.

Community Member

Mike Clayton wrote:

Economists are much gloomier and dangerous to humanity, IMHO.