How statistics can change our lives
Statistics are an integral part of our every day life
By Grace Kennedy, Staff Writer
“I couldn’t imagine a world without statistics,” Hong Gu said, sitting in front of a shelf of statistics books and a board of chemical compounds.
Gu and her colleague Chris Field are statisticians at Dalhousie University, working with molecular biologists to create a tree of life, and both see statistics as integral to society.
“We actually use statistics all the time in life, for every decision we make,” Gu said. “Anywhere there’s uncertainty, and you need to make a decision to get the best profit, then you have to think about if you can get some data from before, and then you can make models and analyze it.”
Without these statistics, the world would look a lot different.
According to Service Canada, the number of statistics- and mathematics-related jobs is expected to increase by 1.6 per cent between 2011 and 2015.
“I think the main place we would see an immediate impact is the treatment of our health,” Field said. “We would probably still be doing blood-letting. Without any sort of statistics, you wouldn’t know what works and what doesn’t. But I think medicine would be, in our everyday life, where we would notice it the most.”
Statistics is an integral part of the health care system too, supporting everything from drug discovery to the management of hospitals.
The beginning stages of drug discovery are a process of data mining, which is the extraction of potentially useful, implicit information from data. This has dramatically reduced the time it takes to manufacture drugs.
“You have to find some kind of thing that is active target to something in the disease but not too toxic,” Gu said. “Before this, usually it would take ten years to find a compound that was active, but now, you can use a model to predict many active compounds.”
This is simply one example of the many uses of statistics — a field not just restricted to academia and the sciences; they also play an important role in everyday life.
Insurance companies are hotbeds for statistical analysis, particularly actuarial statistics which calculate liabilities, evaluate risks and help create financial plans. Lotteries, weather forecasts, and advertising all involve the application of statistics.
“Sports use (statistics) all the time,” Field said. “I mean, football coaches or baseball managers will have all kinds of statistics of what their opponents will do in certain situations, and they’re using that continually to make decisions.”
Statistics are also used to help form efficient recycling methods, new criminal justice systems and better transport infrastructure.
All these different applications require data, and according to Field, that is why the demand for statisticians will increase in the coming years.
“What’s happening with statistics is that we’re getting more and more data, more and more complex data,” said Field. “It just makes it more and more challenging.”
“More and more interesting,” Gu added, laughing.
“Interesting and challenging,” Fields said. “I think just the fact (that) we have so much data is just going to create the jobs.”
According to Service Canada, the number of statistics- and mathematics-related jobs is expected to increase by 1.6 per cent between 2011 and 2015. That’s compared to the 0.8 per cent increase for the labour market in general.
Currently, Gu points out, many statistician jobs are filled by people who don’t have a degree in statistics.
“People who got a degree in other subjects, but can’t really find a job directly in the other subject…they get a job as a statistician,” she says. “From that you can see that the demand for statisticians is high, because they can’t find real statisticians.”
Many organizations — more than 1,700, in fact — are joining forces this year for the International Year of Statistics, an event to promote careers in statistics to the next generations. Gu and Field agree that statistics make for an exciting occupation.
“It is a good window, and through this window you can connect to any science anywhere in the world,” Gu says. “Whatever problem you are interested in, statistics is right there and…this gives you the flexibility to work on almost anything you are interested in.”
Field, quoting the eminent statistician, John Tukey, says, “As a statistician, I can play in everyone’s backyard.”
Grace Kennedy is a journalism student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has done freelance journalism on both the East and West coasts and has a particular interest in science journalism. You can find her LinkedIn here.