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The ASA Committee on Professional Ethics: Promoting Data for Good

1 February 2022 No Comment

David CorlissWith a PhD in statistical astrophysics, David Corliss is lead, Industrial Business Analytics, and manager, Data Science Center of Excellence, Stellantis. He serves on the steering committee for the Conference on Statistical Practice and is the founder of Peace-Work, a volunteer cooperative of statisticians and data scientists providing analytic support for charitable groups and applying statistical methods in issue-driven advocacy.

Welcome to 2022 and a new year of promoting and facilitating Data for Good and sharing stories from practitioners. This year, Stats4Good will feature a series of columns focusing on the many ways the functions, committees, events, and groups within the American Statistical Association support this important work. The first stop on our tour is the Committee on Professional Ethics.

Perhaps best known for developing, maintaining, and publishing the ASA’s Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice, the committee’s mission includes a number of other important tasks. Its members serve an important pedagogical function, educating ASA members about ethical issues in statistics and conferring with the ethics organizations of other professional societies in areas such as law and medicine.

The committee has nine members appointed by the ASA president-elect for three-year terms. The scope of the committee’s work is clearly defined, and there are limits in place. While they do educate about ethical practices, the committee members do not offer a certification or serve as judges or arbiters of ethical questions. Updates to the guidelines are developed and submitted by the committee, which the ASA Board must approve.

The centerpiece of the committee’s work is the Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice, a practical handbook for ethical practice and a guide for what to watch out for in our own work and that of others. It’s not a statistical—or even a scientific—document, but rather a sociological one, describing the social contract in which we engage as statisticians. The language is designed to facilitate practical application, describing the actions of ‘the ethical statistician.’

As I have written before, the key to communicating ethical behavior is in the adverbs employed. Ethics are not found in the verbs—not what we do—but rather the manner in which we do. The ASA’s ethical guidelines carefully observe this practice. As one example, we read in Section A at #7, “The Ethical Statistician … Exhibits respect for others and, thus, neither engages in nor condones discrimination based on personal characteristics; bullying; unwelcome physical, including sexual, contact; or other forms of harassment or intimidation.” This is not a statistical statement, but rather a description of how statistical practice should be conducted.

One application of the guidelines that deserves more notice is the role it can play to benefit organizations employing its benchmarks, whether in industry, academia, government, or other areas. We can promote the use of the guidelines where we work, partner with human resources to advise on our organizations’ standards. They can be taught to staff members and used in recruiting, where potential staff and students will be glad to know ethical practices are codified and earnestly followed.

The ASA’s ethical guidelines are a living document, subject to development to keep up to date with the evolution of statistical practice. They were most recently updated by the committee a few years ago, and the revisions were approved by the ASA Board in April 2018.

For my part, if there were something I could add to the guidelines, it would be stronger encouragement to participate in Data for Good. These activities are promoted by the ASA in a number of ways, and the practice of statistics and data science for the greater good is the main focus of many ASA members’ careers. However, various statements supporting this work are found in the ethical practices of many other professional organizations, from the American Medical Association to associations for accountants and architects. I wouldn’t go so far as to make it a requirement, as the American Bar Association does with at least 50 pro bono hours a year expected. But perhaps a statement could be added to call out statistical practice for the greater good as a worthy pursuit in keeping with the ASA’s stated mission “to promote the practice and profession of statistics.” Read through the guidelines and consider what changes you would advocate for.

This column exists to support and lift up D4G activities for all ASA members—and, indeed, for all analytics professionals. My goal, both as a statistical professional and a column writer, is to make Data for Good normative—simply an ordinary part of a statistical career. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to be engaged, but it does mean conversations about our own particular engagement in D4G can be an ordinary part of the ASA experience and a mode and model for a productive career.

In the multitude of ways analytics professionals participate in this work, Data for Good isn’t all we do, but it is the best of what we do. All of us can support and share the work of the ASA Committee on Professional Ethics.

Getting Involved
In opportunities this month, check out Kaggle’s open data sets page. The competitions may have come and gone, but the data is still available to support development of your own solutions. Top trending data sets include D4G opportunities for biostatistics of cardiovascular health, updated country-level economic data from the Maddison Project, and the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge.

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