If people want to call those who do such jobs "data scientists" rather than "statisticians" because it sounds more dignified, or gets them more money, or makes them easier to hire, then more power to them. If they want to avoid the suggestion that you need a statistics degree to do this work, they have a point but it seems a clumsy way to make it. If, however, the name "statistician" is avoided because that connotes not a powerful discipline which transforms profound ideas about learning from experience into practical tools, but rather, a meaningless conglomeration of rituals better conducted with twenty-sided dice, then we as a profession have failed ourselves and, more importantly, the public, and the blame lies with us. Since what we have to offer is really quite wonderful, we should not let that happen.
The italicized bit is mine. I think it sums up what myself and others have felt for awhile now. It may seem that what we call ourselves is irrelevant, but maybe it isn't. Many companies or products go through a re-branding process to improve their image or make themselves sexier. The cynical side of me says that this is just an effort to increase revenue, but the almost ever present flip-side is that it works. As a discipline, we are competing with other disciplines for the revenue of people. Currently, students have more choices than ever before in the history of education. Re-branding the profession may be exactly what is needed.
However, changing the nomenclature or title (even the name of the degree) will not be enough. Too many statistics courses are still taught in a manner in which students come out feeling that the discipline is a meaningless conglomeration of rituals better conducted with twenty-sided dice. The content in the introductory course hasn't changed (in many courses) in twenty years. I am positive that some people who read that last sentence believe that to be a good thing. They likely view education through nostalgic lenses.
Several years ago, psychology researchers published an article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which they identified the content, triggers, and functions of nostalgia. One key finding was that people seem to engage in nostalgia specifically to make themselves feel better, which suggested that we may be unconsciously biased towards remembering things that make us happy and against remembering the things that do not. Human beings have a remarkable propensity towards this bias, requiring far less information to confirm beliefs when they are consistent with our current state of mind. In the psychology literature, this is known as “confirmation bias”, and there is a substantial body of research that has shown that people are predisposed to remember more of the good things in life.
My experience (personal data) was that I did not understand the true nature, power, and sexiness of statistics (or data science) until my Ph.D. work. Some of this is, of course, related to being able to see the forest for the trees, but much of it was the problems that were presented in my earlier course work. Seeing a disciple as one that transforms profound ideas about learning from experience into practical tools requires profound questions and problems. The fact is that many students make decisions about their future course work and major after a single course. One great experience in an early course is all that is needed to forever tie that course into our memories. A terrible experience forever associates the discipline with negative feelings. The first course is the most important one for the discipline. We have an obligation to do better by our students in this first course. If that includes re-branding ourselves as data scientists, so be it.
On a lighter note, my favorite quote about R appeared in a NYT article about bond traders.
The traders here are mostly educated in math or physics, often outside the United States, and their desks are piled high with textbooks like the “R Graphs Cookbook,” for working with obscure computer programming languages.You can read the article here [read article].