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Reflecting on Quality vs. Quantity

1 June 2017 161 views No Comment

There are three things that either I worry about disappearing or want to have disappear. This is not that I am a Houdini wannabe, it’s just that I see the times they are a changing. And sometimes change is good, sometimes not. So, what’s on my mind?

Where Did the Quality Go?

When I was a boy, Pepsodent toothpaste had a catchy jingle: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” This sounded like a clarion call regarding the quality of this product. Well, Pepsodent almost doesn’t exist anymore. (Actually, today Pepsodent is a “value brand” marketed primarily in discount stores and retailing for roughly half the price of similarly sized tubes of Crest or Colgate.) There are now countless brands and varieties of toothpaste on the market. No one seems to pitch quality, and I have no idea where the yellow went.

Cott Soda advertised, “It’s Cott to be Good,” clearly stressing its superior quality. What happened to it? In 2009, Walmart cut its exclusive agreement to sell Cott as its house brand and Cott went from a Wall Street “buy” recommendation to a “hold.” Not much fizz there.

How about Ford cars? In the 1980s, when Ford was scrambling to counter inroads into the U.S. market by Japanese rivals led by Toyota Motor Corp, the automaker rolled out the slogan, “Quality Is Job 1.” Notch one up for quality. But, whoops, that’s not the slogan today. Ford’s current slogan is “Go further.”

Why the concern with corporate quality images going the way of the Edsel? It’s simply that, in our field, in the age of Big Data, I am concerned we may have lost our grip on quality in favor of quantity. And, while I will discuss my thoughts about Big Data in a future column, suffice it to say I think the statistician’s role will be to ensure quality and provide accurate interpretation of data.

For a much more serious example, consider the District of Columbia’s tests for females possibly infected with the Zika virus. Anthony Tran, a new employee, was reviewing the data and noted that “all 409 of the secondary Zika tests returned were negative, something that seemed statistically suspect.” He was right. The tests were botched and some pregnant women, previously assured the result was negative, now had a worrisome positive result.

I am concerned where data come from. For more than 30 years, the following quote by Josiah Stamp appeared on the wall in my office:

“The government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn pleases.” —Sir Josiah Stamp

The quote is a reminder that the raw data should be carefully scrutinized for its applicability to a particular situation. I’m not sure devotees of Big Data are too concerned.

Incidentally, my colleague John Warren has suggested that even the quote is wrong. Apparently in jolly ‘ole England, where Stamp resided, they had officials called village headmen. They were roughly equivalent to what we would call the city mayors. Isn’t it more likely, John has suggested, that the village headman supplied the data, not a watchman? By the way, the very same Josiah Stamp also said, “The individual source of the statistics may easily be the weakest link.”

Where Did the Statistician Go?

So, I am worried when quality is disappearing, or at least not in the forefront of our collective minds. I also become concerned when statisticians are disappearing. No, this does not mean some huge reduction in our numbers. Rather, it is my personal concern that our nation’s embrace with flexiplace, distance learning, podcasts, remote conferencing, etc. is reducing our ability to meaningfully interact to achieve desired collaborative outcomes.

I may be old school (OK, not just may be), but I like having a dialog and watching the expression on an associate’s face indicating understanding, agreement, concern, opposition, or whatever. Then, I feel comfortable that, indeed, we are on the same page, or that we must re-examine the page. I simply do not find that degree of understanding through an emoji, no matter how clever it might be. I hope you agree!

While I certainly realize our ability to conduct business remotely is a technological breakthrough permitting long-distance collaborative efforts at greatly reduced costs, I am concerned about its misuse. One of my peeves is the seminar we can attend remotely. A wonderful tool but, thanks to our nation’s desire to multitask, it can be used improperly and annoyingly. I am sure I am not the first guy ever to attend a seminar in which the chair asks folks to mute their phones to eliminate interfering noises. Unfortunately, one of Nussbaum’s many life observations is that the very culprit, busy with another effort in his/her desire to multitask, is the one who did not hear the chair’s request. Thus, the noises, coughs, sidebar conversations, and distant dog barks persist to the chagrin of everyone else.

In March’s President’s Corner, I dwelled upon the importance of clear and succinct statistical communication. This is imperative for our good work to successfully integrate into decision-making at all levels. Having given hundreds of briefings in my career, I have no doubt that face-to-face discussions at the high level are far more effective than stressing a point via Skype or conference call.

Where Is the Audience?

Probably about now, many of you are preparing your presentations for the Joint Statistical Meetings this summer in Baltimore. So a few pointers here. You may remember my mantra, “It’s Not What We Said, It’s Not What They Heard, It’s What They Say They Heard.” What is the connection with JSM presentations? While you are clearly proud of your efforts and hard work, try to remember the purpose of the presentation is to inform others about your work. To be truly effective, the individuals in the audience should truly understand what you said and integrate it into their thinking. In this manner, many collaborations have been initiated based on listening to a presentation and discussing the possible benefits of joint efforts on future projects. Obviously, this only occurs if the attendee accurately understands the presentation, which in turn, depends on the quality of the presentation.

Some specific pointers: Remember the audience. Your PowerPoint presentation may be great, but don’t face it. Look at your audience and engage them. Also, practice! Make the presentation succinct and make sure it fits within the time constraint. The ASA gives many opportunities to have practice presentations prior to your talk. Take advantage of that. Also, this will ensure your presentation works and two of the common messages, “RGB” or “No Signal,” will disappear.

With that in mind, have a wonderful time at JSM. I find the number-one advantage of this conference is the ability to meet, greet, confer, collaborate, and enjoy the company of your fellow statisticians. Yes, I think the most important aspect of meetings like this is the hallway schmoozing. Take advantage of the opportunity.

And, one special activity at JSM: For the President’s Invited Address, I have invited Jo Craven McGinty of The Wall Street Journal. McGinty is a Pulitzer Prize winner who describes how analytic methods and statistics are used to address life’s occurrences and practical problems in her weekly “The Numbers” column. She has a refreshing way of explaining those knotty problems affecting us each day. One good example was her discussion of trees. After reading that the number of trees in the United States had increased, McGinty wondered how one would know this. I think you, like me, never thought about how difficult this might be to estimate. Her explanation was fabulous.

She also did an excellent article covering the ASA’s “Statsketball” contest challenging high-school and college students to apply some analytic methodology to bracket picks in March Madness. Come hear her remarks at JSM, and maybe you will have NCAA success next March.

Significantly forward,


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