Statisticians are Saving Us

This month is Mathematics and Statistics Appreciation Month. What a coincidence! It is statisticians after all who created the curve we are trying to flatten. They are putting in long hours, sleeping in their offices next to their supercomputers. Their data will guide governors in decisions moving forward. The statistical modeling they produce is about all we have to go by in making these decisions with their enormous consequences.

While many people now are trying to follow the data, it takes great knowledge, experience, and self-discipline to accurately interpret that data. Statisticians need to be objective. It is not fair to call this cold, rather, it is honest. It is about integrity, the integrity of the data and the integrity of the interpretation. The rest of us will see in the data what we want to see or see what we fear.

Because of this, statisticians are also subject to coercion from the politicians and people they work for who want a certain outcome. So, their work also takes courage, as they may be the bearers of bad news that conflicts with people’s agendas.

One knock on statistical modeling is that it does not produce certainty. It only produces probability. This knock was recently used to justify not lowering the emission standards for smoot. This response is either a dishonest excuse or it is based on ignorance.

Statisticians and mathematicians got people to the moon and back through probability, not certainty. Major decisions on Wall Street and in corporate America are based on probabilities. Computer simulation speeds up development of new drugs even though it produces probability, not certainty. And on and on. If we aren’t comfortable with probability, we are severely impaired and should not be making major decisions.

So, let us add mathematicians and statisticians to our list of COVID-19 heroes. They are saving lives. Their work is taxing on them and their families. But like front line workers, they love what they do, and they love being of service. They also love being acknowledged and appreciated, just like the rest of us.

With the central role they are playing in the war on COVID-19, maybe now we can allow statisticians to shape other vital decisions that impact the environment, instead of wasting their good work by allowing greed and indifference to prevail as they have.