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The Importance of Teaching Ethics in Statistical Consulting Courses

1 September 2017 83 views No Comment
This column is written for anyone engaged in or interested in statistical consulting. It includes articles ranging from what starting a consulting business would entail to what could be taught in a consulting course. If you have ideas for articles, contact the ASA’s Section on Statistical Consulting’s publications officer, Mary Kwasny.

Alan Elliott is the director of the Statistical Consulting Center at Southern Methodist University within the department of statistical science. Previously, he served as a statistical consultant in the department of clinical science at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas for 30 years.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in The American Statistician in March 2017.

An important component in any statistical consulting course is the topic of ethics. There are at least two reasons to include a study of ethics within this course. First, universities may require ethics as part of a degree requirement, as is the case at the university where I teach. Second, practicing statisticians should be aware of how the ethical guidelines adopted by their own professional organization can help them orient themselves to the profession. This article is primarily about how the ASA Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice is an important component to the training of future statisticians. As stated in the guidelines:

The Ethical Guidelines aim to promote accountability by informing those who rely on statistical analysis of the standards that they should expect. The discipline of statistics links the capacity to observe with the ability to gather evidence and make decisions, providing a foundation for building a more informed society. Because society depends on informed judgments supported by statistical methods, all practitioners of statistics, regardless of training and occupation or job title, have an obligation to work in a professional, competent, and ethical manner and to discourage any type of professional and scientific misconduct.

Science enables discovery of how the natural world works through the collection and study of observable physical evidence. Statisticians/data analysts play a key role in the scientific analysis and interpretation of results, using appropriate techniques. When scientists follow professional guidelines, science advances. When data analysts sidestep statistical ethics, the profession loses respect and those who should have benefited may suffer undesirable consequences instead.

We live in a data-centric age. Today’s statistical profession encompasses a variety of careers described with terms such as applied statistician, data scientist, data analyst, and business analyst. This sudden and expanding need for the search for meaning within Big Data adds to the challenges that already exist in the world of data analysis.

A desire to establish ethical guidelines for the use of statistics is not new. The first committee recommendation for a code of ethical practice was in 1949. Various other stages of the ethical code took place in the ensuing decades, culminating in the formation of an ad hoc Committee on a Code of Conduct in 1977. A code was adopted in 1981, and a permanent Committee on Professional Ethics (CoPE) was formed in 1986. The ASA Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice were adopted in 1999 and revised in 2016.

The importance of the ASA guidelines, and a reason each student of statistics needs to be aware of them, is that they define ethical—consensus-based—standards on how to use and communicate the results of statistical methods in a manner that maintains scientific and professional integrity. In addition, the profession benefits from the dissemination of these guidelines because they help provide credibility and recognition for the value of our profession.

Whenever, and by whomever, statistics are misused, it reflects badly on the entire statistical community. It degrades the profession and forces statisticians to become defensive about the value of their own career. It is therefore imperative that curricula help students establish successful careers by including training in professional guidelines that protect the profession and provide transparent principles of conduct for the practitioner, client, and collaborator.

The practicing statistician has a unique role among scientists. Unlike most scientists, whose careers are focused on a field of study within a particular scientific discipline, a statistician often works across disciplines. A consulting statistician may work on topics that range from clinical science to factory efficiency. The ASA guidelines can serve as an important tool in helping the statistician navigate potential challenges in working in an interdisciplinary role.

Rather than teaching these ASA guidelines as a body of knowledge to be learned and memorized, the challenge is to mentor students into a lifelong practice of responsible scientific conduct. Moreover, the ASA ethical guidelines may be most useful in providing professional response options to the statistician in the face of decisions made by others that might conflict or lead to conflicts with these guidelines.

The guidelines are organized into the following eight topics. Each topic includes general guidelines on standards to be followed by an “ethical statistician.” They do not address all ethical issues, and they do not answer specific ethical questions. Rather than policing or offering specific rules for conduct, they are designed generally to “help statistics practitioners make and communicate decisions ethically.”

    1. Professional Integrity and Accountability
    2. Integrity of Data and Methods
    3. Responsibilities to Science, Public, and Client
    4. Responsibilities to Research Subjects
    5. Responsibilities to Research Team Colleagues
    6. Responsibilities to Other Statisticians
    7. Responsibilities Regarding Allegations of Misconduct
    8. Responsibilities of Employers

CoPE continues to look at ways to disseminate relevant information and help instructors train students in ethical practice. This includes a current effort to collect case studies that can serve as teaching tools.

We have both an opportunity and a responsibility to include ethical training as we prepare students for professional practice with statistics. In particular, this training should include substantial discussions about how the ASA guidelines provide a template for ethical behavior in our profession. This provides students with the tools to become more successful scientists and leaders and helps our profession create and contribute to a better world through ethical science.

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