Thursday, September 02, 2010

Leo Breiman quote about statisticians

One nice thing about having to move offices is that it forces you to go through old papers and folders. I found my folder containing KDD 97 conference notes, including quotes in the tutorial by David Hand from Leo Breiman (1995):
One problem in the field of statistics has been that everyone wants to be a theorist. Part of this is envy - the real sciences are based on mathematical theory. In the universities for this century, the glamor and prestige has been in mathematical models and theorems, no matter how irrelevant.
I love this quote because it highlights the divide between the practical and the elegant or sophisticated. Data mining and predictive analytics are "low-brow" sciences, empirical, and practical. That doesn't mean that the mathematics aren't important; they are very much so. But while we wait for the elegances of a theory to trickle down to us, we still need solutions.

In courses I teach, one of my objectives is to take the mathematics of the algorithms and translate the practical meaning of what they do into understandable pieces so that practitioners can manipulate learning rates and hidden units, gini and two-ing, radial kernels and polynomials kernels. Understanding backprop isn't important to most practitioners, but understanding how one can improve the performance of backprop is very much a key topic for practitioners.

We need more Breimans to pave the way toward practical innovations in predictive modeling.

2 comments:

rebecca breiman said...

Thank you for this- it is only through posts like this that I continue to get to know my father in his academic/professional career. I remember one day when UC Berkeley hired another thoerist Dad came home and described this exact divide over a bowl of strawberries that my step mother sneaked his way as part of their diet that they hated- Best, Rebecca Breiman

Dean Abbott said...

I'm thrilled that you saw the quote and was encouraged by it. I only met your father once--I flew to Baltimore to hear him teach a tutorial just so I could finally meet him in person. I was so glad I did!

Reading stories about him like this put a smile on my face because it provides a different look on him as a person and not just the technical genius he was. Thanks for posting!