We had an interesting departmental seminar last week, thanks to our post-doc Joakim Ekstrom, that I thought would be fun to share. The topic was The Future of Statistics discussed by a panel of three statisticians. From left to right in the room: Songchun Zhu (UCLA Statistics), Susan Paddock (RAND), and Jan DeLeeuw (UCLA Statistics). The panel was asked about the future of inference: waxing or waning.

The answers spanned the spectrum from “More” to “Less” and did so, interestingly enough, as one moved left to right in order of seating. Songchun staked a claim for waxing, in part because he knows of groups that are hiring statisticians instead of computer scientists because statisticians’ inclination to cast problems in an inferential context makes them more capable of finding conclusions in data, and not simply presenting summaries and visualizations. Susan felt that it was neither waxing nor waning, and pointed out that she and many of the statisticians she knows spend much of their time doing inference. Jan said that inference as an activity belongs in the substantive field that raised the problem. Statisticians should not do inference. Statisticians might, he said, design tools to help specialists have an easier time doing inference. But the inferential act itself requires intimate substantive knowledge, and so the statistician can assist, but not do.

I think one reason that many stats educators might object to this because its hard to think of how else to fill the curriculum. That might have been an issue when most students took a single Introductory course in their early twenties and then never saw statistics again. But now we must think of the long game, and realize that students begin learning statistics early. The Common Core stakes out one learning pathway, but we should be looking ahead, and thinking of future curricula, since the importance of statistics will grow.

If statistics is the science of data, I suggest we spend more time thinking about how to teach students to behave more like scientists. And this means thinking seriously about how we can develop their sense of curiosity. The Common Core introduces the notion of a ‘statistical question’– a question that recognizes variability. To the statisticians reading this, this needs no more explanation. But I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to teach this practice to math teachers teaching statistics. I’m not sure, yet, why this is. Part of the reason might be that in order to answer a statistical question such as “What is the most popular favorite color in this class” we must ask the non-statistical question “What is your favorite color.” But there’s more to it than that. A good statistical question isn’t as simple as the one I mentioned, and leads to discovery beyond the mere satisfaction of curiosity. I’m reminded of the Census at Schools program that encouraged students to become Data Detectives.

In short, its time to think seriously about teaching students why they should want to do data analysis. And if we’re successful, they’ll want to learn how to do inference.

So what role does inference play in your Ideal Statistics Curriculum?