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08. 17. 2009

Want an imaginative, empathetic career as a story-teller? Become a statistician!

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Imran Ali of GigaOM's WebWorker Daily has got me thinking in a new way about the future of work. "It's Data, Baby," he writes in the New York Times.

I'm trying to get my head around two ideas he presents that seem in irrevocable conflict. One is the counterintuitive notion that in 10 years the sexy job description will be "statistician." The other is the equally counterintuitive notion that, because we are drowning in data, the future of work lies not in the logical, data-oriented left brain but in the right brain--calling on intuition, imagination, story-telling, empathy, and an ability to synthesize disparate ideas.

And then a recent example of just that sort of analysis popped right into my right brain, and probably my left brain too.

Remember the excitement a few days ago when the US unemployment figures appeared to nudge down a hair? The headline on the Associated Press story was typical. It read "Surprisingly strong jobs data signal turning point." Hooray!

But keep reading and reading and reading. Not until paragraph 13 do we find out that employers are expected to continue cutting jobs, so the unemployment rate will probably go up again.

And then, finally, in paragraph 14(!), we get the real dope: "In fact, the main reason the unemployment rate declined last month was not an inspiring one: Hundreds of thousands of people, some discouraged by their failed job searches, left the labor force."

So the teeny apparent dip in the jobless rate is a total mirage. If it dipped at all, it was because the government simply stopped counting hundreds of thousands of unemployed folks who would love to get jobs but have come to believe it's hopeless. And we had to wait until paragraph 14 to find that out!

The Labor Department's analysis of its own data is much less sunny--more realistic, and, I would say, much more empathetic. You could even argue that it tells a story about how much folks are hurting. The statisticians viewed the unemployment rate as "little changed," and said other measures were too--for example the number of folks working part-time because they can't find a full-time job. Data on discouraged--and therefore uncounted--workers began higher up in the news release, at paragraph 7.

So maybe statisticians are right-brained after all, even though dealing with data might seem like a very left-brained way to spend a workday.

Thinking you might investigate the uncommon notion that statistics is--or soon will be--a glamorous career? Ali's post lists several links to get you started polishing up your right-brain skills.

Posted by Tam    Category: current affairs
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