Statistics Has Become Famous, and Aren't We Lucky

‘Statistics’ is a rising star. Everywhere I turn, people are talking about data and the value of being able to analyze and act on it. As someone who’s been writing about that for years, I say it’s about time.

Statistics is like a talented actress whose decades of appearing off Broadway have finally paid off.

For years, her work has been enriching our lives without us knowing it. Statistics helps produce our Netflix recommendations, but she’s not listed in the credits. And though you may not recognize her, Statistics plays pivotal roles in countless other projects that keep us healthy, secure, and content.

When we’re sick or injured, we expect any blood components we receive to be safe. And they almost always are, but only because organizations like the Red Cross statistically monitor their processes to meet strict quality standards.

We want our tax dollars spent well, without realizing that public officials who do are often analyzing data to cut costs – like those in Tyler, Texas, who implemented more than 100 Lean Six Sigma projects and drastically reduced expenses.

We can even count on brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev to keep us in good beer, thanks to how they used statistics to simplify production line conversion from one brand to another. And if you prefer Guinness, you should know the company actually created a new statistical method to make sure it delivered the perfect stout. Talk about writing a part with an actress in mind.

Like any big star, Statistics makes money for whoever employs her. These quality improvement projects saved their organizations a combined total of nearly $6 million. And as you’d expect, that gives Statistics some clout when negotiating her contracts.

Money, Opportunity, and Prestige

Just last year, the mean annual salary of a statistician in the U.S. was $83,000, and in Silicon Valley it was a whopping $150,000. The McKinsey Global Institute predicted a shortage of up to 190,000 people with analytical expertise, which will likely drive salaries higher. LinkedIn acknowledged this trend when it rated statistical analysis and data mining as the number one hottest job skill of 2014.

Colleges and universities are responding in kind. Between 2003—2013, the number of U.S. schools granting undergraduate statistics degrees jumped from 73 to 110. And in just the last four of those years, the number of degrees they granted increased by more than 95%.  Fortune reports that a Ph.D. in Statistics was the best graduate degree for jobs.

Even high schools are feeling the impact. The number of students taking the AP exam in Statistics has been increasing by 12% each year since 2003.

True to form, Statistics’ star power enables these professionals to work on the projects they care about most. The American Statistical Association’s awareness campaign This is Statistics reveals that data analysts are everywhere—assessing federal assistance programs, contributing evidence to war crimes trials, and estimating human exposure to pollution and its effects on public health. They’re even predicting which plays an NFL opponent will call. As Natalie Cheung Hall, a featured statistician, says, “Whatever your passions are, statistics will be involved.”

Perhaps the clearest sign that Statistics has arrived is that even her spokesperson is a celebrity. In his TED talk, Professor Arthur Benjamin makes a winning pitch to teach statistics, calling it “the mathematics of games” and “a way to predict the future.” His three-minute video Teach statistics before calculus! has captivated more than 1.6 million YouTube viewers.

But the best thing about Statistics’ rise to fame isn’t her commercial and popular success, it’s her indifference to it. Like any true artist, she’s more interested in the work itself—the material she gets to explore, the insights she discovers, and the effect she has on her audience. And like any true fan, we can never get enough.

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