11(4) 09 Opinion p47

Transcript

1 A world without statistics How would science, society and technology have evolved if we did not have statistics? imagines what might have been. Andrew Gelman Without statistics, I assume that various ot so long ago, I was asked by a reporter statistical measurement and comparison. As mistakes would get into the system – ineffective James so memorably wrote, the alternative for a quote regarding the importance of N treatments that people think are effective. statistics. This got me thinking: Is statistics really to good statistics is not “no statistics” but But, on balance, I doubt these would be huge “bad statistics”. James wrote about baseball that important? Would a world without statistics mistakes, and the big ones would eventually be much different from the one we have now? commentators who would make asinine get caught with careful record-keeping – even arguments which they would back up by picking What would be missing? Science would be without statistical inference and adjustments. out numbers without context. In politics, the pretty much OK. Newton did not need statistics Of course, without statistics, biologists equivalent might be a proudly humanistic for his theories of gravity, motion, and light, would not be able to sequence the gene, columnist David New York Times pundit such as nor did Einstein need statistics for the theory and I assume they would be much slower at Brooks supporting his views by just making up of relativity. Thermodynamics and quantum developing tools such as tests that allow you to numbers or featuring various “too good to be mechanics are fundamentally statistical, but in amnio check for chromosomal abnormalities . true” statistics and not checking them. lots of progress could have been made in these I doubt all these things add up to much yet, areas without statistics. The second law of but I guess there is promise for the future. thermodynamics is an observable fact; ditto the Statistics is also necessary for a lot of drug two-slit experiment and various experimental development – right now my colleagues and I results revealing the nature of the atom. Maybe the A-bomb and H-bomb are working on a pharmacodynamic model of What about the A-bomb and, almost would never have been invented dosing – but, again, without any of this, it is certainly, the H-bomb? Maybe these would – but I think most people would not clear the world would be so much different. never have been invented without statistics – Take another one: polling. You cannot do but, on balance, I think most people would feel feel that the world would be a that well without statistics. But would a world that the world would be a better place without better place without them without polling be so horrible? I think polling these particular developments. is generally a good thing – I agree with George At a more applied level, statistics helped to Gallup that measurement of public opinion is an win the Second World War – most notably in important part of the modern democratic process cracking the Enigma code, but also in various So here is one strong benefit to the formal – but I would not want to hang too much of the operational research efforts. And it is my study of statistics: without statistics, there benefits of statistics on this one use. impression that “our” statistics were better would still be numbers, along with people than “their” statistics. So that is something. trying to interpret them. But where would civilian technology be When I started writing this article, I was without statistics? I am not sure. Without leaning towards the view that statistics does A deeper understanding statistics we would not have modern quality not really matter, but I think that is because I control, so maybe we would still be driving was focusing on the more highly publicised but Perhaps the most important contribution of around in AMC Gremlins and the like. That is a less beneficial applications of statistics: the use statistics comes not from the direct use of scary thought, but not a huge deal. of statistical experimentation and inference to statistical methods in science and technology, In a world without statistics, would the get -values for tabloid-bait scientific papers; p but rather in helping us learn about the world. study of quantum physics have progressed far its use by Google and Amazon to perfect Statisticians from Francis Galton and Ronald enough so that transistors were invented? their techniques for squeezing money out of Fisher onwards have used statistics to give us That would make a difference in my life. No their customers; or, at best, to test a medical a much deeper understanding of human and transistors means no blogging – and I guess treatment that increases survival rate for some biological variation. I cannot see how any we could forget about other unequivocally rare disease by two percentage points. non-statistical, mechanistic model of the world beneficial technological innovations such as But statistics is central to how we think could reproduce that level of understanding. modern pacemakers, hearing aids, cochlear about the world. I still think that it is much Forget about -values, Bayesian inference, and p implants, and Microsoft’s Clippy. less significant to our lives than, say, chemistry. the rest: here I am simply talking about the Modern biomedicine uses lots of statistics, But it ain’t nothing. nature of correlation and variation. but would medicine be so much worse without For a more humble example, consider the it? I do not think so – at least not yet. You do baseball historian and statistician Bill James. Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and not need statistics to see that penicillin works, Baseball is a silly example, to be sure, but political science and director of the Applied nor to see that mosquitoes transmit disease and the point is to see how much understanding Statistics Center at Columbia University. He blogs at that nets keep mosquitoes out. has been gained in this area through . andrewgelman.com october2014 47

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