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Statistically Significant

To the Editors:

While no scientist should disagree with Hugh G. Gauch, Jr. ("Winning the Accuracy Game," March-April) regarding the need for sophisticated statistical approaches to scientific problems, many times there is an education gap that prevents such techniques from being used to full advantage.

For many scientists, statistics is not a discipline that is high on their horizon, and no requirements for such courses exist in their curriculum. This leaves their future ability to use such tools to self-study, or perhaps an elementary course that may tend to give scientists a limited ability to design their programs or analyze their results.

I have always been astounded by the use of statistics by some political and social scientists, who are unable to properly interpret the results but nonetheless have their findings published in the popular press, to the discomfiture of their more skilled-in-statistics colleagues. Statistics is a necessary tool, but in the hands of the ill-trained,  it is a dangerous one.

Nelson Marans
Silver Spring, MD

Dr. Gauch responds:

I certainly agree that many scientists receive an inadequate education in statistics. I suspect that there are several problems. One is that science is rapidly changing, particularly in the sheer quantity of data that many scientists now accumulate.

Fortunately, where I am at Cornell, the chair of Statistical Sciences has been involved with administrators to gather information on what kinds of data professors and graduate students are collecting and what kinds of data analysis and hypothesis tests they need, so that statistics courses can be updated and tailored to fit the students' actual needs. Among the results of this effort are more emphasis on multivariate analysis and the Bayesian paradigm.

Another problem, which my article already mentioned, is that statistical procedures or advances in one scientific specialty may be imported very slowly into other specialties with similar data structures and problems. In this regard, general science publications such as American Scientist have a vital role to play, because their readership spans countless disciplines and specialties.

But one bright hope is that a striking success story—like a remarkable gain in efficiency and accuracy—can attract attention.



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