“Any field of study followed by the word “science”, so goes the old wheeze, is not really a science, including computer science, climate science, police science, and investment science.”—Ray Rivera, Forbes Magazine
I too have engaged in my fair share of hand-wringing over “data science”, how the term is used and mis-used, the high quantity of snake oil available, and some generally sloppy practices that seem to be becoming the norm in the internet’s new data-based gold rush.
However, as my mama used to say, “I can beat up on my brothers all I want, but you, sir, are not family.”
Data, harnessed for good, is going to transform our world and the way we do business. People who understand data, the mathematics of how data streams relate to each other, and how computers interact with that data, are going to be indispensable to this process. I don’t always agree with Thomas Davenport and DJ Patil. For example, I don’t think code is the most important skill a data scientist can have (though my Ph.D. makes me susceptible to bias). I do, however, listen to them because they think about data as much as I do. They care about this field as much as I care about this field, and they, generally, are working to make it better. There are a lot of open questions, and as scientists, it’s our job to collaborate in solving them.
You are right on a lot of points, Forbes. For example, I have worked with data for 16 years. In that time, my title has changed from Data Warehousing Specialist, to Data Miner, to Data Analyst, to Data Scientist. I currently hold the official title of “Senior Mathematician” because that is what the industry I work in understands. My job has never changed. I have always been responsible for understanding my customer’s data and turning it into actionable information. I have better tools now, and I have a clearer understanding of how that job can best be done. The field has progressed by leaps and bounds, and so what we call ourselves has changed. That doesn’t mean we think we’re doing something new. It means you think we’re doing something new.
I was going to say “It’s not my fault if you don’t get it,” but that’s not really true. Communicating what I do is part of my job. The title change from Data Analyst/Mathematician/Data Miner/Data Warehousing Specialist to Data Scientist is part of my attempt to communicate with a business community that understands very little that can’t be condensed into a buzz word. The word Data tells you that I transform raw information into actionable information. The word Scientist emphasizes my commitment to making sure that the analyses my colleagues and I produce are verifiable and repeatable—as all good science should be.
Understanding data processing, i.e. code, is part of the repeatability. We need to write good code because we need to make sure someone who doesn’t have our complete skill set can repeat what we’ve done. It’s a service to you, the business community, so you can work on your own. If you think it’s our way to make ourselves indispensable, then you or someone with whom you work are doing it wrong.
I have already expressed my excitement, here and elsewhere, about data science and the many new opportunities ahead. I look forward to collaborating with members of the business community who understand the value of what I do.
I also wish Mr. Rivera and people who think like him the best of luck. They’re going to need it.