Probing Question: Why are statistics important in modern life?

Quick! Think of professions that will be the sexy jobs of the next decade. Statistician probably didn’t leap to mind—but odds are it soon will. Number nerds, take heed: statistical skills are in increasingly high demand and being applied to an incredibly diverse set of exciting problems, says Penn State Professor of Statistics Naomi Altman.

The explosion of digital data is behind the boom in careers based on statistics, including actuarial science, informatics, and machine learning, Altman notes. “These fields have all been very highly ranked for a number of years now,” she explains. “Data are a huge resource, but statisticians are needed to help people make sense of the information gathered.”

Today’s new breed of statisticians are sleuths who use modern analytics to find patterns in vast oceans of information. “Almost every arena of life generates data that can be mined for valuable patterns,” says Altman, “ranging from predicting storm paths and movie sales to determining the best target drugs for individual genetic profiles.” What’s more, she adds, “Specialized areas of statistics, such as quality assurance in manufacturing and scheduling for transportation networks, have also grown tremendously. I am pretty confident that the statistician’s skill-set is going to be increasingly valuable.”

Explains Altman, the needs of science and industry, especially during the two world wars, spurred the growth of new statistical methods. “But the field was very hampered by lack of computational power until the development of the computer industry in the 1950s. Since then, statisticians have taken advantage of every advance in computing technology, and every advance in computing technology has provided more data that need novel statistical methods.”

Naomi Altman

Naomi Altman

Beyond the field’s more obvious uses, there are lesser-known applications that people might be interested to consider, Altman suggests. “Statistics are at work when your credit card company detects an unusual purchasing pattern and does a fraud detection check. Fingerprint and iris identification programs use statistical algorithms. Airlines and hotels use statistical algorithms to determine whether it is cost-effective to overbook and to adjust routes and locations.”

Statisticians even affect the food we eat, she adds. “Acceptable levels of contaminants in food and water are determined statistically, as are the appropriate amounts of spices and other ingredients in prepared foods.” In short, notes Altman, “there are few areas of our lives in which statistics are not being used.”

Are there times when knowing the stats is counterproductive? “If we were completely rational beings, then having more information would always be helpful,” Altman says. “However, there is plenty of evidence to show that we do not always behave rationally, so undoubtedly there are situations in which we might be better off without the statistics.

For example, if someone is ill with a disease with a 95 percent mortality rate over a six-month period, they should rationally make use of the time in the best way possible for themselves and their families. But many people would find that news so devastating that their quality of life would be badly impacted.”

Is Altman ready to call statistics sexy? “I’m not sure about that,” she says with a smile. “But we are finding a large demand for courses in statistics, including our online classes, which allow people in the workforce to retain their jobs while earning graduate degrees in statistics.”

For herself, she says, “Statistics has allowed me to participate in very diverse set of projects: the whale census, assessing various agricultural practices, quantifying bird migration patterns, determining if there were cancer clusters associated with hazardous waste sites, measuring wind dispersion of hazardous materials and most recently a variety of projects using genomics for understanding plant evolution, plant growth and environmental impacts on oceans. I cannot imagine too many other fields that give one access to so many interesting societal and scientific problems.”

Naomi Altman, Ph.D., professor of statistics, can be reached at nsa1@psu.edu.

Last Updated November 16, 2011