One word: statistics

In another sign of the growing interest in the field, an estimated 6,400 people are attending the statistics profession’s annual conference in Washington this week, up from around 5,400 in recent years, according to the American Statistical Association.

The attendees, men and women, young and graying, looked much like any other crowd of tourists in the nation’s capital. But their rapt exchanges were filled with talk of randomization, parameters, regressions and data clusters. The data surge is elevating a profession that traditionally tackled less visible and less lucrative work, like figuring out life expectancy rates for insurance companies.

That is the New York Times’ idea of a sales pitch for more undergraduate statistics.

Even so, the number one piece of advice I give my undergraduate advisees: don’t graduate without (at least) a solid grounding in multivariate regression and experience manipulating data. This advice is needed; with the exception of economics, not a single social science degree at Yale requires a stats credit.

This is not simply self-serving advice. Whether you want to understand the latest political poll, medical discovery, or business proposition, a basic grasp of stats is essential. If you want to understand why most polls, medical analyses and business decisons are flawed, then you need to go even further.

Don’t believe me? Here is Peter Orszag (Obama’s budget director) on why stats is essential for good public policy. And here is Tim Harford musing on China’s latest morale-boosting campaign dubbed “Statistical Feelings”.

Possibly those feelings get a little too gushy. China’s Bureau of Statistics even offers a love poem to the discipline, Love the Homeland, Love Statistics:

Life
Some mock me for doing statistics
Some loathe me and statistics
Some don’t understand what statistics are
Why is it that statistics
Put a calm smile on my face?

Personally, I eschew the stats poetry and buy all my research assistants a copy of this econometrics introduction. Any recommendations for equally user-friendly intro books?