Friday, I was on the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation in North Dakota. Most of the time while I was there, I spent at the Spirit Lake Vocational Rehabilitation Project, an impressively effective group of people who help tribal members with disabilities get and keep jobs. A few years back, I wrote a system to track their data using PHP and MySQL. It is deliberately simple because they wanted a basic database that would give reports on the number of people served, how many had jobs, and some demographic information. A research project used SAS to analyze the data to try to identify predictors of employment.
Due to a delayed flight, I spent the night with my friend in Minot, discussing, among other things, the decline in native speakers of Cree, and not the herd of deer in her backyard, which was common place enough to pass without comment.
Saturday, I was back home in California, on a dinner cruise in Marina del Rey. We were discussing how to analyze the data on persistence in our games to show that the re-design, with a longer lead-in story line and a higher proportion of game play early on was effective. I suggested maybe we could use survival analysis. Really, it’s the same scenario as how many people are alive after 2, 3 or 4 months or how many people kept playing the game after the 2nd, 3rd or 4th problem.
The deer, the large loud sea lion on the dock and I spent the exact same amount of time discussing the probability mass function for a Poisson distribution and proving the Central Limit Theorem.
My point is, that everywhere I go, and that is a REALLY broad range of places, people are interested in the application of statistics, but SO much of school is focused on teaching how to compute the area under the normal curve or how to prove some theorem or computing coefficients using a calculator and plugging numbers into a formula, inverting matrices. I’m not sure how helpful that was to a student and I can guarantee you that the last time I computed the sums of squares without using a computer was about 35 years ago.
Whether you are are using SAS, SPSS, Excel, R, JMP or any one of a dozen other statistical packages, it lets you focus on what’s really important. Does age actually predict whether or not someone is employed (in this case, no)? Do rural school districts have fewer bureaucratic barriers ? Is this a reliable test? Did students who played these games improve their math scores?
When I was young, and many of the current statistical packages were either very new and limited or didn’t yet exist, someone asked me if I was worried that I would be out of a job. I laughed and said no, because what computers were replacing was the computational part of statistics, and except for that tiny proportion of people who were going to be developing new statistics, the jobs were all going to be in applying formula, not proving them and sure as hell not computing them with a pencil and a piece of paper. A computer allows you to focus on what’s important.
What IS important? That’s a good question and another post.