Dec 14, 2013

XL-Files: Nobel Prize in Statistics?

Contributing Editor Xiao-Li Meng writes.

No, this was not inspired by my recent Ig Nobel experience. The idea has been around for a long time but it particularly inspired me when I was asked to contribute to a volume celebrating the 50th anniversary of COPSS. The first few paragraphs of my article explained why I titled it “A Trio of Inference Problems That Could Win You a Nobel Prize in Statistics (if you help fund it)”:

“The title of my article is designed to grab attention. But why Nobel Prize (NP)? Wouldn’t it be more fitting, for a volume celebrating the 50th anniversary of COPSS, to entitle it “A Trio of Inference Problems That Could Win You a COPSS Award (and you don’t even have to fund it)”? Indeed, some media and individuals have even claimed that the COPSS Presidents’ Award is the NP in Statistics, just as they consider the Fields Medal to be the NP in Mathematics.

No matter how our egos might wish such a claim to be true, let us face the reality. There is no NP in statistics, and worse, the general public does not seem to appreciate statistics as a “rocket science” field. Or as a recent blog (August 14, 2013) in Simply Statistics put it “Statistics/statisticians need better marketing” because (among other reasons), ‘Our top awards don’t get the press they do in other fields. The Nobel Prize announcements are an international event. There is always speculation/intense interest in who will win. There is similar interest around the Fields Medal in mathematics. But the top award in statistics, the COPSS Award, doesn’t get nearly the attention it should. Part of the reason is lack of funding (the Fields is $15,000; the COPSS is $1000). But part of the reason is that we, as statisticians, don’t announce it, share it, speculate about it, tell our friends about it, etc. The prestige of these awards can have a big impact on the visibility of a field.’ ”

For me, the most compelling reason for having highly visible awards in any field is to enhance its ability to attract future talent. Virtually all the media and public attention our profession received in recent years has been on the utility of statistics in all walks of life. We are extremely happy for and proud of this recognition—it is long overdue. However, the media and public have given much more attention to the Fields Medal than to the COPSS Award, even though the former has hardly been about direct or even indirect impact on everyday life. Why this difference? Forgiving me for self-plagiarizing twice, but here was/is my reflection:

“Rather, these awards arouse media and public interest by featuring how ingenious the awardees are and how difficult the problems they solved, much like how conquering Everest bestows admiration not because the admirers care or even know much about Everest itself but because it represents the ultimate physical feat. In this sense, the biggest winner of the Fields Medal is mathematics itself: enticing the brightest talent to seek the ultimate intellectual challenges.

And that is the point I want to reflect upon. Have we statisticians adequately conveyed to the media and general public the depth and complexity of our beloved subject, in addition to its utility? Have we tried to demonstrate that the field of statistics has problems (e.g., modeling ignorance) that are as intellectually challenging as the Goldbach conjecture or Riemann Hypothesis, and arguably even more so because our problems cannot be formulated by mathematics alone? In our effort to make statistics as simple as possible for general users, have we also emphasized adequately that reading a couple of stat books or taking a couple of stat courses does not qualify one to teach statistics?”

Of course no award attracts more attention than the NP does. And there is no shortage of NP-hard problems and (hence) NP-worthy figures in statistics. I’m sure our personal lists of historical NP-worthy figures would be more homogenous (e.g., Fisher, Pearsons, Neyman, Tukey, Box) than the lists for contemporary ones, but surely compiling the latter is more fun!

“Fun?” I hear you say. “Don’t you have better things to do than teasing people with a non-existent prize?”

You are right, but (hopefully) not for long. The International Year of Statistics (just ending as I write this) has brought together an effort to establish an International Prize in Statistics (soon to be announced; check the ASA webpage). It will have an NP-like amount: $1M* (if you help fund it). And if we believe statisticians are as persuasive (and clever) as economists, who shrunk Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel to Nobel Prize in Economics [see the announcement on the front cover of this issue!], I don’t see why we cannot succeed in expanding ours to the International Prize of Statistics in Memory of Alfred Nobel?

Just curious, who’s your top nominee? Post your responses below!

—-
* Editor’s Note:
IMS members Raghu Varadhan and David Donoho have won respectively the Abel Prize and Shaw Prize, two major mathematical prizes at the $1M level.

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