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The allure of the statistics field grows

Nate Silver, author of the political blog FiveThirtyEight.
Nate Silver, author of the political blog FiveThirtyEight.Associated Press

Throughout history, "statistician" has not typically been one of the sexier job titles. But now — thanks in part to Nate Silver, who correctly predicted the presidential election — that may be changing.

Although he's yet to hear anyone use "Wanna go home and crunch some numbers?" as a pickup line, MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson says the field's allure is growing.

"Statisticians have become sexy just the way geeky Internet nerds became sexy in the 1990s, and I suppose investment bankers were in the 1980s," said Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business. "Things that drive the economy give people power, and I guess that's sexy."


"There are over 100 billion Internet searches every month," he said. "That's a staggering amount of data. People like Nate Silver are now very much in demand because they have the tools for looking at all this data."

Indeed, a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the US will need between 140,000 and 190,000 more professionals with expertise in statistical methods by 2018.

The new heartthrob stature of statisticians was captured in the Nov. 19 issue of The New Yorker, in an imagined love letter to Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight political calculus blog runs in The New York Times.

Sabermetrics guru Bill James.
Sabermetrics guru Bill James.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

"I can't stop thinking about how you study polls and create probability models and predict elections and how you're always right, which I think is so unbelievably cute," a fictional smitten 11-year-old wrote, "and I keep imagining you saying to me, 'Emma, I think that there's a 93.7% chance of me falling in love with you.' " (Paul Rudnick penned the piece.)

So pronounced was the post-election statistician bump, that the American Statistical Association put out a press release that both reveled in the field's high profile during the 2012 election — and pointed out that statisticians are enabling advances in other fields, too. Among them: medicine, economics, public health, agriculture, business analytics, law enforcement, and weather forecasting.


No mention was made of Boston's most famous statistician, Bill James, who coined the term "sabermetrics" to describe the specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence. (The term is derived from an acronym for Society for American Baseball Research.)

As baseball — and Brad Pitt — fans no doubt recall, statistics got a pre-Nate Silver glamour boost when Pitt played the stats-using Oakland Athletics' general manager, Billy Beane, in the 2011 movie adapted from the book "Moneyball."

Brad Pitt (with Jonah Hill) as Billy Beane in “Moneyball.”
Brad Pitt (with Jonah Hill) as Billy Beane in “Moneyball.”Associated Press

Meanwhile, with the International Year of Statistics just over a month away, in 2013, the statistical association's incoming president reflected on the field's change.

"People used to think of us as actuaries," said Marie Davidian, a statistics professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

You've come a long way . . . mathematicians?

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.