The blog of the Urban Institute
May 10, 2019

Anything plus Statistics Is Better Than Anything: A Q&A with Rob Santos and Tim Triplett

May 10, 2019

Statistics’ impact on our lives is far-reaching and important but seldom acknowledged.

Statistics helps things function more reliably. It can help medical imaging technology detect tumors or produce more reliable results for political polls that gauge the direction of our nation.

“I like to say that anything plus statistics is better than anything,” said Urban’s vice president and chief methodologist Rob Santos. “Statistics adds value. It adds insight. It makes society better.”

Santos and Tim Triplett—a senior research associate and survey methodologist—were recently elected to the board of directors of two prominent statistics-related associations.

Santos will be the 116th president of the American Statistical Association (ASA), serving as president-elect in 2020, over the course of a three-year term. The ASA is the largest association of statisticians in the world and the second-oldest continuously operating professional association in the US.

Triplett will be standards chair for the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) in 2021, serving as chair-elect in 2020 and chair in 2021. AAPOR is the leading professional organization of public opinion and survey research in the country.

In the following conversation, Santos and Triplett discuss the pivotal role statisticians and survey researchers will play in our future, especially as we head into the 2020 election season.

What do you want the public to know about the world of statistics and surveys?

Santos: I’m hoping to boost a fuller understanding of the role of statistics in our society, both among the statistical community and the general public. Virtually every aspect of our lives is enriched by applications of statistics.

This can include everything from deciding where to invest in infrastructure to algorithms that improve diagnoses with X-ray imaging, to consulting Yelp restaurant ratings to choose a dinner spot. I hope to broaden the recognition of statistics’ contribution to our society while bringing new people into the fold, like those with interests in the humanities and arts who haven’t realized the value that statistics can bring to a career in those areas.

Triplett: As standards chair for AAPOR, I will field all challenges to various polls that are asserted to be false or flawed, like so-called push polls, which attempt to push respondents to change their views.

A common misconception about standards is that we are all about enforcing the rules. In reality, applying standards is an active, educational process. A lot of my committee’s work will be informing members about how they can do a better job and avoid flawed practices or complaints.

What real-world challenges are around the corner for your field?

Santos: A big priority for the ASA will be the upcoming 2020 Decennial Census. The ASA filed an amicus brief regarding the controversial and potentially damaging addition of a citizenship question to the census. The ASA also expressed concern that the census has been underfunded, which could increase the risk of undercounts for vulnerable populations and lead to unfair outcomes.

Triplett: The 2020 election season will bring many complaints about polling accuracy. My goal is to help my peers successfully navigate the various challenges that arise during this busy time of year:

  • Many poll complaints relate to push-polls that aim for voter manipulation—seeking to boost a certain candidate’s performance over the opponent.
  • Survey respondents in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire could suffer from burnout, leading to lower response rates and confusing results.
  •  Organizations that rely on survey data can become saturated with new information, which can ultimately affect decisions and public policies.

What priorities do you have as leaders in your field?

Santos: One of my priorities as president will be creating a multiassociation effort to build a pipeline of statistics students, especially from economically challenged areas. It’s important that we promote diversity and inclusion in the field and get people from a variety of backgrounds to consider statistics as a career.

I also hope to further the work of the ASA task force on sexual harassment and awareness. My hope is to further develop policy so that members can reach a high level of professionalism in all aspects of interactions and networking. We aspire to be more inclusive, respectful, and aware of how behaviors can be interpreted. This will promote statistics as a profession and help build a better society.

Triplett: Due to the high level of complaints coming in during an election year, my peers will be stressed and working hard. I’m hoping to help them relax and focus on our goals. When everyone is better informed about our standards, we will hopefully have more trustworthy polls and fewer complaints.

Illustration by Novikov Aleksey via Shutterstock.

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.