INSIDE STORY

Numbers don’t lie

 “Statistics … can be used to support or undercut almost any argument.”

“Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.”

“There are three ways to not tell the truth: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

In order, top to bottom, I understand that columnist/IQ maven Marilyn vos Savant, longtime Dodger baseball sportscaster Vin Scully and legendary American humorist Mark Twain are responsible for these quotes. I’m not sure what they have in common besides a quick wit or why they targeted statistics, but they all contributed to a long-running, mainstream narrative that derides statistics.

Like all good jokes and verbal potshots, there’s a grain of truth in everything they say. And yes, it’s easy to “cook” the numbers via selective sampling, loaded questions, misapplied analysis techniques, etc. But for the multitudes in the operations research community, data, statistics and statistical analysis – properly applied – form the foundation of the profession and yield invaluable insight into countless, complex problems that confront decision-makers every day.

Several contributors to this issue of OR/MS Today are dedicated statisticians at heart. Jim Swain, for example, has overseen our biennial survey of statistical software for more years than either of us care to remember. In introducing the latest version of the survey (page 56), Swain notes that, contrary to the quotes above, Google’s chief economist Hal Varian “declares that statisticians have the ‘really sexy job’ for the coming decade, for who better will there be to make sense of so much data?” Talk about revenge of the nerds.

The 2012 U.S. presidential campaign might be over, but the post mortem lives on. Doug Samuelson and Arnie Barnett dissect various analytical angles of the election in their respective articles, “Analytics: key to Obama’s victory” (Samuelson, page 20) and “Did Nate Silver beat the tortoise?” (Barnett, page 26), while Liam O’Neill weighs in on the bestselling book “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns” (page 16).

As mentioned at the onset of this column, statistics and statisticians have had their detractors over the years, but as James Cochran and John Brocklebank point out in “Statisticians help make the world go around” (page 30), that often inaccurate public perception is rapidly changing as analytics and data-driven decision-making take root in the corporate world.

“Every day, organizations find powerful new ways to use statistics to understand complex issues, solve important challenges and improve the lives of millions of people around the world,” Cochran and John Brocklebank write, noting that 2013 is the “International Year of Statistics” – a year to celebrate the discipline’s “growing positive impact on a global scale.”

We close this column by noting a milestone: 25 years ago this month, Lionheart Publishing produced its first issue of OR/MS Today on behalf of INFORMS. That adds up to 151 issues, including this one. For anyone involved with OR/MS Today, that’s a stat we can celebrate.

— Peter Horner, editor
peter.horner@mail.informs.org