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Teachable Moments

1 November 2010 No Comment
Sastry Pantula


This is an exciting time to be a mathematical, statistical, or computational scientist. A combination of core, computational, and communication skills will be needed for solving problems in the future, requiring multidisciplinary teams. With massive amounts of data being generated in various scientific studies, there are—and will be—opportunities for us to play an important role in data quality, data confidentiality, data security, and data analysis. These opportunities also bring challenges that lead to new discoveries, theories, and methodologies. We will continue to play a key role in innovation and economic development in a data-centric world.

However, abundance of opportunity, global competitiveness, and the current economic climate also may put pressure on us and other scientists to cut corners or misuse statistical methodologies. It is important that we maintain high ethical standards and scientific integrity. A few resources to help with this include the following:

These resources provide excellent teachable moments for our students, neighbors, and the public in general. Please take advantage of any opportunity to promote the practice and profession of statistics.

Recent National Research Council rankings of graduate programs provide another opportunity to discuss good statistical methodologies used to develop such rankings and uncertainties inherent in any such study. They provide a teachable moment about the importance of defining variables clearly. If the data being input are not correct, the output will be questioned and corrections will have to be made.

Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 provides a depressing look at a gloomy future, but also teachable moments about changing direction with proper investments.

During a recent seminar at North Carolina State University, U.S. Census Bureau Director Bob Groves gave a progress report on Census 2010 and provided teachable moments about the challenges of conducting a census. [I encourage the continued use of statisticians in government and industry for seminars in academic departments.] During his talk, he mentioned the importance of statistical and quantitative literacy for children, who will be taking censuses and making data-enabled decisions in the future.

A number of observational studies, when the data are made easily available, provide teachable moments about the use and misuse of statistics and about false discovery rates. It is admirable that some of our members advocate good practice and take an active role in pointing out the misuses of statistics when they see it.

Climate modeling and health studies are also a source for examples. These topics have been in the news lately and provide the opportunity to highlight good statistical practices. It is a challenge to provide cautionary notes in a sound-bite world.

Recently, there was a memorial event in Berkeley celebrating the contributions of David Blackwell, who passed away in July. I learned much about him from his friends and relatives, including that he looked for simple solutions to complex problems and emphasized that the greatest truths are the simplest. It was also clear that he enjoyed teaching and mentoring, spending time with friends and family, having his martinis at 5 p.m., and looking for the positive in every situation. The memorial event was a “learnable” moment for me.

Editor’s Note: Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the ASA president and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation.

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