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Goofs, Gratitude, Headway, and Heroes

1 December 2017 No Comment

Barry D. Nussbaum

As a native New Yorker, I sometimes think of Ed Koch, the former three-term mayor who would stand at street corners and ask in his classic Bronx accent, “How’m I doin’?” I wonder if any of today’s politicians would be so bold as to ask that. But here, in my last President’s Corner, I want to answer how we are doing.

I suggested three initiatives. The communications initiative centered on my oft-repeated mantra, “It’s not what we said, it’s not what they heard, it’s what they say they heard.” We teamed up with the Stats + Stories group at Miami University. Started in 2013, this is a collaboration between statisticians and journalists producing podcasts that give the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. With the new ASA assistance, a quality solution for having guests participate remotely via Skype now exists. Further, the programming has been augmented with five-minute episodes called Stats + [short] Stories. This partnership will continue affording ASA members the opportunity to both be guests and suggest topics of interest.

Our youth initiative has the goal of presenting interesting subjects using statistics to middle-school youngsters. The aim is to let these youngsters have fun while learning about statistics. This is the ASA’s counterpart to the Museum of Mathematics, but will be a virtual space called the House of Statistics. Game-based learning, videos, and educational cartoons developed by our collaborators at Laber Labs will be available in the House of Statistics. There will be opportunities for learners of all ages to engage in data challenges.

In addition to housing valuable educational resources and assisting career exploration, the House of Statistics will be a resource for ASA members engaging in outreach.

The House of Statistics will also host virtual sessions with ASA members as they share their passion for statistics and data science. We anticipate the “open house” will be announced in early spring 2018.

As you can see, thanks to ASA Director of Strategic Initiatives and Outreach Donna LaLonde’s lead, both the communications initiative and the youth initiative are making great progress.

The third initiative involves engaging the fastest-growing segment of the statistics community: the Asian statistician. We launched a task force of members of the International Chinese Statistical Association, International Indian Statistical Association, and Korean International Statistical Society. This task force, under the excellent leadership of David Morganstein, examined some of the specific needs of this group. Among the concrete results was a career session at JSM devoted solely to young Asian statisticians. While we worried about the attendance on early Sunday morning of JSM, it was a true joy that we had to contact the hotel staff to get extra chairs for the standing-room only attendees.

I am most concerned that these initiatives not be called Barry’s initiatives, but rather regarded as important ASA programs. So, let’s continue with these efforts.


I have enjoyed writing my musings each month in this column. Naturally, I have wondered who reads it. The best way to find out is to say something erroneous. Somebody will tell you that you got it wrong. So, thanks to those of you who were kind enough to comment on my goofs. Some of the more memorable ones were Sastry Pantula, who suggested the frequently heard refrain “statistics is my worst subject” is not so frequently heard. Turns out Sastry and I had different populations. He had youth at a university, and I had, shall we say, an older set. I think this bodes well for our profession.

I also thank Tom Louis for pointing out that my remarks about significant digits were significantly flawed. I also appreciated David Mundel’s thoughtful comments regarding the lead in gasoline/blood lead correlations.

But my favorite comments came from several of you, who noted my quote of Josiah Stamp regarding government analyses based on data provided by village watchmen who submit whatever they please. Turns out the quote was in Josiah Stamp’s book, but he didn’t say it. Further, it happened in India, not England. So, I guess I got the person, the country, and the continent wrong. I hope this still falls within the 3% margin of error.


In the past, I held office in a chapter, chaired a committee, chaired a section, and dealt with ASA staff. I still did not have a full idea of how all this works together to the benefit of our 19,000 members. Watching the committees, the councils, and the executive board, as well as interactions with other mathematical and statistical societies, really showed me what a well-oiled machine we have to promote our profession. I certainly want to thank all those devoted members who give their time and effort to serve on various groups, whether it is our geographic chapters, our subject-oriented sections, or our interactive committees. Also, special thanks to students who have contributed to the explosive growth of our student chapters. Of course, I am deeply indebted to the ASA officers who preceded me and showed me the ropes. I hope I may be half as helpful to my successors.

The professional staff of the ASA were a joy to work with. They do a heck of a lot more than just “minding the store.” They run meetings, coordinate chapters, handle finances, distribute communications and publications, maintain an active policy voice, support continuing education, develop innovative programs, and maintain an online presence. They do all this collaboratively, with professionalism and enthusiasm. My sincere thanks go to Ron Wasserstein and his entire staff. Somehow, they always were there for me and never complained when I bothered them, which I am sure occurred at several occasions.


The image of a statistician is one of a person sitting behind a desk manipulating numbers. Yet, the job is not always so sedentary. We do have members who go into harm’s way. Bill Hunt spent time in Kuwait right after the Gulf War in 1991. Bill was checking air quality measurements while the fires were still raging, and, as he told me, “watch your step,” as there were still up to 4 million land mines.

Holly Shulman made several trips to Puerto Rico to design a hospital-based surveillance system to record the effect of the Zika exposure to women giving birth. Eric Vance needed an armored police transport in Nigeria to give a distinguished guest lecture … better distinguished than extinguished. And Jana Asher’s 10 years of work collecting human rights violation data brought her to countries including Iraq, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Not exactly the list of places a travel agent suggests.

Some responses indicate you became a statistician to provide needed analysis for crucial situations without directly being in danger. That’s just fine with me. In fact, I want to end with a thought I gave in my address at the recent JSM. I think, many times, statisticians are the unheralded heroes. I have some personal experience. Two years ago, I lost my wife after an incredible 26-year battle with breast cancer. Her survival for so many years is a testament not only to the medical profession, but to the statisticians who develop clinical trials and are responsible for so many medical successes. Keep up the good work. You are all my heroes.

It has been an honor and privilege to have been your president.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, prosperous, and productive new year.

Significantly forward,

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