Coming from outside the field but with healthy curiosity I have been struck by what may be regarded as a discrepancy between the impact on science at large of the mathematics developed in the field of statistics, and the relative lack of popular recognition of its most outstanding figures.

Here come to mind the ubiquitous use of t-tests and ANOVA in medicine, biology, and psychology for example. Certainly, a lot of life-altering decisions on treatment of individuals, as well as health policies, have been informed by results considered scientific and hence trustworthy due to their foundation on these mathematical tools passed along by figures such as RA Fisher (or William Gosset). Another prominent name who has changed our understanding of science, and practically issued an epistemology of empiricism in its own right, can be found in reverend Thomas Bayes.

Anecdotally, a Google search of top mathematicians in history yields all sort of returns on the first page, one of them broad enough to be promising: "List of Important Mathematicians", without mention of RA Fisher, or Karl Pearson, John Tukey... Under "Famous Mathematicians" even CF Gauss is left out.

In trying to sort out a reason for this differential appreciation of historical figures in mathematics and science by the public at large, a suggestion was advanced in one of the comments that perhaps this was extensive to all applied mathematics, not just statistics, in contradistinction to pure mathematics.

This is a plausible explanation, and invites the reformulation of the initial question as: What has been the relation and mutual regard of pure and applied branches of mathematics throughout history?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ So... What is your question exactly? Right now, it sounds like: "This list on the internet doesn't feature a bunch of researchers that I think are important. Does this mean nobody else thinks they're important?", which doesn't really make for a great question, in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – Danu Sep 2 '15 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like this is opinion-based, and not necessarily about history. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Sep 2 '15 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ I just opened a vote to close on this question. I resent it is neither about the history of mathematics, nor answerable by knowledge and observation. $\endgroup$ – VicAche Sep 2 '15 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ @AntoniParellada I think "resent" may have been some typo; with it, the sentence isn't grammatically correct. Also, I closed to question for you just now. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Sep 2 '15 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ I got a different result when searching for Famous Statisticians, the top link has all the mentioned names listed worldofstatistics.org/famous-statisticians-from-history Whether statistics is mathematics seems to depend on one's philosophy, same as whether mathematics is science. Regardless of merits contrary opinion is common on both sides simplystatistics.org/2013/01/11/… math.stackexchange.com/questions/286730/… My guess is that list compilers simply choose to keep them separate $\endgroup$ – Conifold Sep 2 '15 at 18:21

The answer is certainly "no", they are not under-appreciated. A simple proof of this is the salary survey in mathematical sciences published yearly by the Notices of the American Mathematical society. From this survey you can see that the average salary (on all levels) is higher in statistics than in pure mathematics, and the highest one is in "bio statistics".

The articles like those you refer to are probably written by the people who read more on history of pure mathematics, and do not consider statistics a part of it. And indeed it is somewhat separate subject: in many universities, department of statistics is separate from the department of mathematics.

Your observation actually applies to several other mathematical areas, which are frequently not included: mathematical physics, applied mathematics, mechanics, computer science. They have their separate histories, and rarely included in the popular papers on history of mathematics of the kind you refer to.

For example, I doubt that George Dantzig (the inventor of the simplex method), or Cornelius Lanczos (inventor of the Fast Fourier Transform) are included in the lists of "great mathematicians".

  • $\begingroup$ It makes sense although salaries are more a function of industry demand than intellectual recognition. I guess I should have framed the question differently. More along the lines of whether statistical math is on par with other branches in terms of the intellectual merit of its contributions, which is probably what will drive in the long run popular recognition. Can it be that it is just a younger discipline, for example? $\endgroup$ – Toni Sep 2 '15 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think so (on your last question). I gave several similar examples. Applied mathematicians are looked down by some historians of pure math, and this begins with Ancient Greece. Statistics is not special here. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Sep 2 '15 at 17:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.