Working as a biostatistician/researcher, my first reaction to a recent article on Wired was ‘Well, duh!’. The author, Christopher Gooley, who we are told is the founder of a customer insights company called Preact, finishes with the following:

So if you’re succeeding, know why. If you’re failing, know why and do something about it.

Data science seems to be a bit of a buzz-phrase at the moment, along with the job description ‘data scientist’. IBM even defines what a data scientist is. Quoting Anjul Bhambri from that page:

A data scientist is somebody who is inquisitive, who can stare at data and spot trends. It’s almost like a Renaissance individual who really wants to learn and bring change to an organization.

So the first sentence to me is a statistician. At least, that’s how I see (part of) my role as a statistician. The second sentence in that quote though is really where we start to see the difference: ‘… bring change to an organization’. This to me, is perhaps what separates a ‘statistician’ from a ‘data scientist’ and perhaps vice versa.

The job role ‘statistician’ is probably misconstrued by the public. If someone even knows what a statistician is (may be), and that’s not a given, then they often assume I count things from surveys, as in what the ABS and US Census Bureau do (among other things).

Now looking at the use of data science in Google books ngram viewer, shows that data science is mentioned at a much greater frequency than data analytics from the late 80s to the 2000s. So perhaps my initial characterisation of data science being a buzz-phrase is incorrect! Have a look at data analytics though. This is a relatively recent term, gaining popularity in the early 2000’s:

Data analytics almost caught up to data science by 2006, but they seem to be increasing in frequency at the same rate by 2008. It will be interesting to see how that continues.

Anyway, back to my original astonishment. Perhaps there are companies who just mash data together as Gooley suggests, but that seems an extremely naive thing to do - surely not! Gooley later suggests that “… drive-by data science - occasionally running large-scale data science projects to uncover correlations” is performed a lot and shouldn’t be done. But that’s almost what is happening in the experiment he’s chosen later: take some random controls, your highest frequency ‘log-ins’ and an algorithmically selected group, and then compare who’ll upgrade the most after a month. The result? No surprise, he says it’s the algorithmically selected group!

But how was that algorithm trained in the first place? Surely some ‘drive-by data science’ was performed, and parameters estimated on a training dataset, and then validated on a hold-out dataset?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the piece. Maybe I should just take the more cynical route and say that perhaps the suggestion is that you should use a commercial product to predict who will buy your product, rather than some ‘drive-by analytics’.

Anyway, asking why in data science is a good thing. It is a necessary thing. Calling the vast majority ‘feel good’ data science does a disservice to analysts/statisticians/data scientists/whatever the heck you want to call them - it’s not data science.