Statistics Matter

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Written By: Thomas A. Louis, PhD, Associate Director for Research and Methodology

Statistics touch every part of daily life and provide measures of most everything – the rise and fall of the tides, the size of communities and of the U.S. economy, the probability of storms, the balance of trade, the prevalence of disease, the financial cost of hurricanes, commuting patterns and time use, the effectiveness of medical treatments, performance in sporting events, the health effects of environmental exposures; plus thousands of other aspects of human behavior and natural phenomena.  The substantial societal benefits of these measures depend on their quality and relevance.

International Year of Statistics
To draw attention to the value statistics play in our lives and the importance of our profession, the statistical community has designated 2013 “The International Year of Statistics.”  Statistics is the science of learning from data, and of measuring, controlling and communicating uncertainty. It provides the navigation essential for directing the course of scientific and societal advances.

Statistics and statisticians will play increasingly important roles as complex “big data” inform and empower our future. How will society mine the haystacks of information on social networks, time-use, economic, and other activities to benefit science and business? The answer is sound statistical practice.

Statistics inform public policy
A few examples: Each year billions of dollars are allocated to school districts based on the Census Bureau’s county-specific estimates of income and poverty, produced by combining information from the most recent decennial census, from the Current Population Survey, from the American Community Survey and administrative records.  Municipalities use these and other data sources to make decisions on transportation infrastructure.  The nation uses Economic Census statistics in setting the industry benchmarks that shape the Gross Domestic Product, our best indicator of economic health.

Growing demand
Academia, business, government, and individual stakeholders increasingly rely on data-driven decisions.  As Marie Davidian (current president of the American Statistical Association) and I highlighted in our editorial in Science (Vol. 336, April 6, 2012), substantially more statisticians and other data scientists are needed to meet the burgeoning demand to develop valid information and make sense of the data tsunami.   Success will depend on novel statistical designs and analyses, and on innovative communication strategies.

Our data-rich future demands that scientists, policy-makers, and the public be able to interpret increasingly complex information and recognize both the benefits and potential pitfalls of statistical information.  Consequently, it is a good sign that there is a strong push to promote statistics as a key component in precollege education.  We must encourage students to develop skills in describing data, developing statistical models, making inferences, evaluating the consequences of decisions, and asking questions that help calibrate quality.  These are skills that students will use throughout life, whatever their careers.  A data-driven future awaits, and statisticians must lead the way.

In my role as Associate Director for Research and Methodology at the U.S. Census Bureau, I will support our talented researchers in developing new approaches that ensure the Census Bureau remains a world leader in achieving the highest attainable quality of our statistical products. Through substantive collaboration we identify the highest priority issues, develop and evaluate approaches, then transfer the best to practice, thereby ensuring that Census statistics continue to support the public good. Visit Research@Census to learn more.

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One Response to Statistics Matter

  1. Lawrence David Farrell says:

    I wish that more people had an understanding of how important statistics are to our past, present, and future. As residents of this country, we need all the information that we can get to make informed, sensible policy decisions that may affect us all.

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