Category Archives: Science

What is Data Science?

There’s no question that “data science” is becoming more and more popular. In fact, Booz Allen Hamilton (a consultancy) found:

The term Data Science appeared in the computer science literature throughout the 1960s-1980s. It was not until the late 1990s, however, that the field as we describe it here, began to emerge from the statistics and data mining communities. Data Science was first introduced as an independent discipline in 2001. Since that time, there have been countless articles advancing the discipline, culminating with Data Scientist being declared the sexiest job of the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, there are countless graduate and undergraduate programs in data science (Harvard, Berkeley, Waterloo, etc.), but what is data science, exactly?

Given that the field is still in its proverbial infancy, there are a number of different perspectives. Booz Allen offers the following in their Field Guide to Data Science from 2015: “Describing Data Science is like trying to describe a sunset — it should be easy, but somehow capturing the words is impossible.”

Pithiness aside, there does seem to be consensus around some of the pertinent themes contained within data science. For instance, a key component is usually “Big Data” (both unstructured and structured data). Dovetailing with Big Data, “statistics” is often cited as an important component. In particular, an understanding of the science of statistics (hypothesis-testing, etc.), including the ability to manipulate data and almost always — the ability to turn that data into something that non-data scientists can understand (i.e. charts, graphs, etc.). The other big component is “programming.” Given the size of the datasets, Excel often isn’t the best option for interacting with the data. As a result, most data scientists need to have their programming skills up to snuff (often times in more than one language).

What’s a Data Scientist?

Now that we know the three major components of data science are statistics, programming, and data visualization, do you think you could identify data scientists from statisticians, programmers, or data visualization experts? It’s a trick question — they’re all data scientists (broadly speaking).

A few years ago, O’Reilly Media conducted research on data scientists:

Why do people use the term “data scientist” to describe all of these professionals?


We think that terms like “data scientist,” “analytics,” and “big data” are the result of what one might call a “buzzword meat grinder.” The people doing this work used to come from more traditional and established fields: statistics, machine learning, databases, operations research, business intelligence, social or physical sciences, and more. All of those professions have clear expectations about what a practitioner is able to do (and not do), substantial communities, and well-defined educational and career paths, including specializations based on the intersection of available skill sets and market needs. This is not yet true of the new buzzwords. Instead, ambiguity reigns, leading to impaired communication (Grice, 1975) and failures to efficiently match talent to projects.

So… the ambiguity in understanding the meaning of data science stems from a failure to communicate? Classic movie references aside, the research from O’Reilly identified four main “clusters” of data scientists (and roles within said “clusters”):

Within these clusters fits some of the components described earlier, including two additional components: math/operations research (including things like algorithms and simulations) and business (including things like product development, management, and budgeting). The graphic below demonstrates the t-shaped-nature of data scientists — they have depth of expertise in one area and knowledge of other closely related areas. NOTE: ML is an acronym for machine learning.


NOTE: This post originally appeared on GCconnex.

Do New Stadiums Lead to an Increase in Business?

Unless you’re familiar with the literature in this arena (no pun intended) or you know about Betteridge’s law of headlines, the title of this post is actually still an unresolved question for you. Well, I won’t delay the inevitable: according to research published earlier this year, the answer is no — new stadiums do no lead to an increase in business.

There are two things I want to talk about as it relates to this research. The first is Richard Florida. If this area is an interest of yours, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across him. Florida has been a professor for the last 20+ years and has written extensively on cities. Here’s a post I found from him within the last year that talks about the very thing that the journal article discussed:

The overwhelming conclusion of decades of economic research on the subject is that using public funds to subsidize wealthy sports franchises makes zero economic sense and is a giant waste of taxpayer money. A wide array of studies have shown that professional teams add virtually no income to local economies. In fact, some of them find that large subsidies actually have a negative effect, taking money out of the local economy. Aside from the jobs generated by actually building the stadium, most jobs inside the stadium—selling food and beer or working at team concessions—are low-paying temp jobs. It’s even worse for football stadiums, which are used for games at most a dozen times a year, and maybe a few more times for concerts or large events. Public economic development dollars can be put to much better use on things besides subsidizing sports teams and their wealthy owners.

Ultimately, the burden of public subsides falls disproportionately on small cities that are the least able to bear the cost. For example, a $200 million public subsidy for a new stadium ends up costing a small city like Santa Clara roughly $1,650 per resident, compared to just $50 a person for L.A. And, of course, teams in bigger cities, with their bigger markets and more revenue, often do not need subsidies at all.

The reason I raise Florida’s name is because I was surprised that I didn’t see his name mentioned in the journal article. To be fair, I don’t think that Florida has done any primary research in this domain, but I would have thought that even in the opening introduction or literature review that there may have been some reference to Florida’s constant discussion of literature like this.

Anyhow, the second thing I wanted to talk about is something that might not be measurable. Well, it might not be measurable in a simple way. As a former amateur athlete, I have a special place in my heart for sports. Certainly, there are plenty of things that one could classify as “wrong” about sports, but part of me still wants to defend it/them and I’ll be upfront: that might be part of what’s going on with this section of this post.

Something I didn’t see in the article (and probably something I wouldn’t expect to find in any well-written article) is a measure of (or discussion of?) the positive externalities that result from a city’s team winning the championship or even the spillover effects from the possible positive externalities. Now that’s a tortured sentence. I’m talking about how the residents of a city feel after their team wins the championship (in a given sport). Naturally, not everyone would be watching (or care), but for those that are fans of the team that wins, there would certainly be elevated levels of joy and happiness immediately following the victory. If there were studies done on this, I suspect that there might be comparisons to those who have won the lottery in that a couple of months after, lottery winners return to a similar level of satisfaction/happiness that they had prior to the lottery win.

I wonder, though, could we measure the economic gains for a city from this positive externality and the resulting spillover effect (in this case, let’s say the spillover effect would be the “pay it forward”-ness of joy from the fans of the team to the non-fans that the fans will be interacting with in the weeks following the city’s team’s victory). Even if there is a tangible effect that can be measured, I’m sure that any reasonable cost-benefit analysis would still conclude that a new stadium isn’t worth it for a city.

ResearchBlogging.orgHarger, K., Humphreys, B., & Ross, A. (2016). Do New Sports Facilities Attract New Businesses? Journal of Sports Economics, 17 (5), 483-500 DOI: 10.1177/1527002516641168

Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful

Pop quiz: hands up — how many of you think positive stereotypes are OK?

I suspect that for many of you, your first reaction may have been, “well, yeah, they’re positive, right?” I can totally empathize with that shortcut, but consider this excellent quote from Gordon Allport, one of the “founders” of personality psychology: “People may be prejudiced in favor of others; they may think well of them without sufficient warrant,” [quote excerpted from journal article cited below].

Last year, researchers sought to summarize some of the research about positive stereotypes. There were a number of interesting findings. For instance:

Among [a] sample of Asian American students, the majority (52%) had negative reactions (e.g., feeling marginalized) to their group being considered the “model minority” compared with 26% who had positive reactions. […] Although the subjective favorability of positive stereotypes may facilitate their expression among perceivers who intend them as “compliments,” the targets of such stereotypes can feel depersonalized as if they are being acknowledged exclusively through their category membership. [Emphasis mine]

So, while it might be a ‘positive’ stereotype that Asian Americans are considered the “model minority,” it’s possible that an Asian American may feel as if they are being depersonalized when having the stereotype directed at them. That is, they may no longer feel like they’re a person, but rather that they simply belong to this category called “Asian American.”

Let’s back up for a moment.

When I talk about stereotypes in my lectures to students, one of the first things I do is explain the mechanics of a stereotype. Our brain is processing way more stimuli than we could possibly fathom. For instance, in your office right now, do you hear the hum of the lights or the sound of the fan? If you’re on the bus or in a car, do you notice the sound of the brakes? How about at home… do you still hear the creaky sounds of the floorboards or the plethora of sounds that come out of the basement/vents? I suspect the answer to many of these questions for most of you will be no and that’s because you have habituated to them. Your brain has recognized them as non-threatening and moved on to focus on other stimuli — people.

There are so many people on the planet. Really, we could say that there are over 7 billion different kinds of people, but that’s impossible for a brain that’s trying to process as much as it can. So, when you meet people, your brain is busy trying to recognize patterns that it can map onto previous people you’ve met. When everyone’s brain does this, it follows that a thing called “stereotype” emerges. That is, a stereotype is our brain’s way of trying to find a shortcut for understanding the different kinds of people we interact with during our lives.

So, in the example above about Asian Americans, somewhere along the way, someone’s brain decided Asian Americans represented what they believed was a ‘model citizen.’ Forgetting for a second whether this is valid, it’s likely that there were other people’s brains came to this conclusion and so the stereotype is perpetuated.

Just because our brain is doing this in the “background” doesn’t make it ok. As humans, there are so many biases that we have to be aware of when making decisions — our brain taking shortcuts with stereotypes is just one of them. So, what can you do?

Well, as I often say when it comes to biases — the first step is awareness. You’ve gotta recognize that you’re falling prey to stereotyping and once you recognize that you’re doing it, I urge you not to be so hard on yourself. Let’s be clear — I’m not giving you a “pass” for stereotyping, no. But the culture from which you derive can have a lasting effect on your beliefs about people (which inform whether you employ stereotypes).

One quick and easy way to awareness — if you’re ready for it — is Harvard’s Project Implicit Test. I did a quick search and I was surprised that I’ve only mentioned this one other time in the last few years on this site and it was only in passing. From their site:

Psychologists understand that people may not say what’s on their minds either because they are unwilling or because they are unable to do so. For example, if asked “How much do you smoke?” a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may purposely report smoking only 2 packs a day because they are embarrassed to admit the correct number. Or, the smoker may simply not answer the question, regarding it as a private matter. These are examples of being unwilling to report a known answer. But it is also possible that a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may report smoking only 2 packs because they honestly believe they only smoke about 2 packs a day. Unknowingly giving an incorrect answer is sometimes called self-deception; this illustrates being unable to give the desired answer.

The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding. The IAT measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

If you’re ready for the results, I strongly suggest you take the test.

ResearchBlogging.orgCzopp, A., Kay, A., & Cheryan, S. (2015). Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10 (4), 451-463 DOI: 10.1177/1745691615588091

Wanna Lose Weight? Get Some Sleep!

There was some research published within the last year that you might be particularly interested in, should you be in the middle of or about to go on a diet (or you’re interested in your health in general):

This article provides an integrative review of the mechanisms by which sleep problems contribute to unhealthy food intake. Biological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral mechanisms all underlie this relationship.

When I first came across this headline — the less you sleep, the more you eat — immediately, I was interested. After reading the source article (which I quoted from above), I’m heartened by the possibilities for progress in this area.

Naturally, the food we eat has an effect on how we sleep, but the insight that the fewer hours of sleep we get having an effect on how much we eat, is really important. While anecdotal, I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand. If I find myself up past my “bedtime,” I almost always am hungry. And because it’s late at night, my executive function is impaired. Put differently, my ability to make good choices might be compromised. In this case, a good choice would be to not eat a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream (or anything sugary, for that matter). A good choice might even be to reach for a handful of nuts or maybe an apple.

The thing that I wanted to mention in conjunction with this research is my suspicion that there’s a cumulative effect. If you stay up late and then pig out on snacks too close to bedtime, invariably, you’ll probably be waking up with less sleep than you need. As a result, your executive functioning (willpower, decision-making, etc.), will be impaired for the duration of the day. By the time you get to the end of the day, you may find yourself more tired than usual such that when it gets to the time when you’d rather go to bed, you might prefer to “reward” yourself or (decompress) by eating some sweets and staying up late… and then it all starts over again the next day. Once you’re out of balance, Newton’s laws have a way of keeping you there.

This reminds me of something I shared a few years ago about Aikido:

One of the exercises we would often do to practice this sense of blending involved our partner (or partners as it was usually in groups of three or more!) to approach us as if they were attacking us. It was our job to then move out of the way, whilst staying centered. The tempo of this exercise usually started out really slow (intentionally). Though, as time passed, our partners would then speed up. You can imagine how it might be challenging to stay centered in this kind of an activity.

During these times of practice, I remember having a bit of an epiphany.

As my partner would approach me and I would step out of the way, I noticed that the quicker (and the more out of balance!) I was, the more out of balance I would be when stepping out of the way for the next partner who was approaching. Think about that for a second: as I stepped out of the way of one partner and I was off-balance, I was that much more off-balance when stepping out of the way for the next partner. It’s almost akin to the Bullwhip Effect.

This idea of eating “after hours” seems to be a mirror image of the off-balance I experienced during the Aikido exercise. So, if you find yourself on the cusp of a diet, I suggest you consider setting (and keeping!) a strict bedtime for yourself. If you’re curious about how to start this new habit, I strongly suggest Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

ResearchBlogging.orgLundahl A, & Nelson TD (2015). Sleep and food intake: A multisystem review of mechanisms in children and adults Journal of Health Psychology : 10.1177/1359105315573427

Looking for a Husband or a Wife? It’s Time to Learn About Altruism

Human companionship. It’s something that we all crave. In fact, a quick look at Google’s autocomplete shows that two of the top three results for “how to get a” return “girlfriend” and “guy to like you.” It’s pretty clear that sharing our life with someone is something we’d like to do (generally, speaking). So, when I came across some research in this area, I thought I’d contribute to those Google searches with some seemingly helpful data. From the journal article:

Our results show that—among single individuals—engaging in prosocial behavior in any given year was associated with increased odds of finding a partner and entering into a romantic relationship in the following year.

I’ve written about the benefits of prosocial behaviour in a work environment (spend your bonus on your coworkers!), so it’s not entirely surprising to me to see that this same behaviour is also beneficial when it comes to increasing one’s odds of finding a romantic partner. Another way of looking at prosocial behaviour is altruism. Essentially, we’re talking about behaviour where one is attempting to help someone else without expecting something in return. Volunteering is an easy example of this.

You may be wondering about the study’s method. That is, did the researchers guard against the possibility that  the reverse is true (entering into romantic relatonships begets more prosocial behaviour). In fact, they did consider this:

We specifically examined whether those individuals who were single at the beginning of a time period and managed to find a partner at the end of the time period were more likely to experience an increase in helping behavior in the meantime than those who remained single. Our results showed that individuals who started a romantic relationship did not experience an increase in helping behavior compared with those who remained single.

So, it looks like the researchers feel pretty confident in their conclusions about volunteering helping to lead one to a romantic relationship. Before you run out to your local Red Cross or Salvation Army, I wanted to offer a different perspective on this research. In particular, I thought I’d look at some of the historical statistics around volunteerism and marriage. That is, if we accept the premise of the research, we might expect to see there to be some covariance between volunteerism and marriage. That is, as marriage goes up, we might expect that volunteerism would also go up. Similarly, as volunteerism goes down, we might expect that volunteerism would go down.

I had a harder time than I thought I might in trying to find data on these two subjects. However, I did come across a couple of things that gave me pause about this research. The first, volunteerism. According to some research by the US government, it looks like volunteerism is up, recently. That is, it looks like the propensity for volunteering is higher than it used to be (see graph). The second, marriage rates. If the initial research I shared about prosocial behaviour is true, we’d expect to see higher marriage rates (than there used to be). Here’s the headline from the Pew Research Center a few years ago: Record Share of Americans Have Never Married. So, it’s probably fair to say that marriage rates are down. This doesn’t bode well for our initial research on prosocial behaviour.

One last thing I wanted to share on this: millennials. There’s been plenty written about millennials, but I want to focus on the two things we’re talking about today: volunteering and marriage. Compared to previous generations at the same age, millennials are far less likely to get married. Millennials also differ from Gen X’ers when it comes to volunteering:

… higher rates of community service and volunteering. I mean, let’s face it, for Gen X, volunteering was a punishment. You know, you did something wrong at college, you do community service. (Laughter) But the Millennials — it’s more of a norm.


It’s quite possible that the effect realized by the initial research on prosocial behaviour is true, but that it’s not big enough to make a dent in some of these bigger statistics. It’s also possible that some of the counterpoints I’ve raised aren’t as analogous as I think they are. Either way, I think the research in prosocial behaviour is important and I certainly hope you take the chance to spend some time “giving without expecting anything in return.”

ResearchBlogging.orgStavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2015). A Longitudinal Analysis of Romantic Relationship Formation: The Effect of Prosocial Behavior Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (5), 521-527 DOI: 10.1177/1948550614568867

A Brief History of Everything: Where Science and Spirituality Converge

In some fields, the deeper you get into them, the more the field seems to approach spirituality. A perfect example of this is science. No doubt, there’s already plenty written about the convergence of science and spirituality, especially if you take a walk through the “self-help” section of a bookstore. And that’s not to detract from it. For some, reading about science and spirituality in this way is very helpful.

Today, I wanted to share with you another one of those science and spirituality convergences, but from someone I didn’t expect: Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Note: when I first watched the video, I didn’t realize that deGrasse Tyson has actually written a fair amount about spirituality and science.) Below, I’ve included a video set to start at the 6:20 mark. Watch the next minute or so of the video, as deGrasse Tyson takes us on a quick journey from the beginning of time to the present and through it, connects the dots between us and the beginning of time.

I totally understand that people have different views on science, spirituality, and religiosity, but it always gives me pause for reflection when it can be so well articulated that there’s this connection between us and the beginning of time. From the video, we can conclude that we are made of the universe, so “technically,” we are the universe discovering itself. You probably already knew that, but I find that every one and awhile, it helps to be reminded of things like this as it may help to put a current problem in perspective.

Watching a video like this also reminds antiquity. In particular, places like ancient Greece where it might have been more common to sit around and think about the things that deGrasse Tyson talked about in the video. But I wonder… was it? If we think about our world today, the percentage of people who have time to sit around and think about things like those in ancient Greece did is probably not very high, but maybe that was also the case back then. Maybe there weren’t that many people who were sitting around and pontificating on the nature of life.

Maybe I’ve just got a glorified view of the “intellectuals” from that time period, but I wonder how different our Western culture would be today, if we had more time to sit around and think ponder the ‘meaning of life.’ Don’t get me wrong, I understand that time to think is a luxury that not all of us enjoy (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the lucky ones for which time to think is a luxury), but in thinking about our consumeristic ways, part of me wonders how different we could be in a world where we pursued knowledge and not stuff.

The Importance of Literacy in Science

A few weeks ago, I heard a parent attempting to describe to their little one what time it was in a different time zone.  I don’t precisely remember how the parent described the difference, but it got me to think about things of this nature and how we go about explaining them to our little ones. Further to that, it made me consider the importance of literacy in science.

My thought on this is that if a parent is better able to explain the science behind some things to their kids, it might make it easier for the kids to remember the concepts (or understand why things happen). The scientific explanation would replace the, “Oh that’s just the way it is,” or “Just because,” answer that kids might often hear from their parents.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if when kids ask parents why the sky is blue, parents are able to coolly and calmly explain Rayleigh scattering? Or when when kids ask parents about the sun always rising in the East and setting in the West, parents can explain the Earth’s rotation? Or what about when kids ask parents about things always falling to the ground and parents can explain the basics of gravity?

I suspect that if parents are able to offer kids a scientific explanation for why things happen, it could give kids a better rooted understanding of the natural world around them. More than that, I suspect that if it becomes the “norm” that parents (and people) have a basic understanding of scientific concepts, it might change the way we look at Science (or STEM!).


Now, I’m not saying that parents need to go out and get PhD’s in biology, chemistry, or physics, but having a basic understanding of some of the more popular questions could go a long way towards normalizing an understanding of the world around us. Think back to when you were a kid — right in the thick of that period when you asked your parents questions about everything. No doubt, your parents were able to answer some of your questions and give you reasonable explanations, but I suspect that up to a point, the explanation probably began to fell apart. That’s not for lack of trying on the parent’s part — you can only explain so much when it comes to things you don’t understand. But I wonder if your mom/dad were able to give you the best explanation (that is, what science seems to tell us is the most current theory for why something happens), would that have maybe motivated you to test that theory?

For instance, let’s say you were asking your parents about gravity and your mom/dad explained the difference between gravity on the Earth and gravity on the moon. Might that motivate you to consider what the gravity is like on other planets or what the gravity is like in space or what the gravity is like in something that even I can’t consider at this moment? Kids are full of imagination and creativity, and I think if we foster that imagination through some of humanity’s best understand of the world around us, we just might encourage our little ones to change the way we think about the world.