Don’t call yourself a “data scientist”

Someone introduced himself recently as a “data scientist” to a data warehouse pro I know. “I thought he was a fool,” said Interworks consultant Tim Costello. He says it’s a meaningless term — and I believe it’s another one of those distractions thrown around in a roiling industry.

One of the most interesting of the others I’ve heard is Scott Davis, the founder of Lyzasoft. He emailed this week from somewhere on the Caribbean, “Data scientist is just a term someone applied to a set of skills and practices that have existed for a very, very long time. Like, since the invention of the abacus.”

What does he say to those who think it’s an attempt to distinguish between data analysts of any level and those at the top of the discipline? “The attempt is not by someone who does this stuff,” he writes. “It is by someone who is selling something…either a book or a training regimen or a system or a degree or a tool or….”

I looked for Stephen Few’s opinion, and of course he had one. In his 2,500-word blog post “Are you a data scientist?,” he cites interesting articles and poses good arguments, and essentially agrees with Scott and Tim. “There is indeed a science to data sensemaking,” he writes at the end, “but data science by any other name (and there are many) would smell as sweet.”

But why do we care? We do waste a lot of breath on terminology that means little one way or another. But sometimes it does matter — such as in Jill Dyché’s now-famous blog post “Why I wouldn’t have sex with a data scientist.”

Was he too busy, as she originally thought? Or was the poor guy just too full of himself? Whichever, it demonstrates natural selection the way it’s supposed to work.


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  2. Hi Ted,

    If someone deserves the title “data scientist,” it is definitely Stephen Few. He has devoted years to studying and explaining how people perceive data in various forms. Science is ultimately about observing, building approaches to explain what you see and using this knowledge to develop further insights that build on earlier findings. However, I know that Stephen doesn’t call himself a data scientist.

    Unfortunately, like “big data,” the title “data scientist” is being used by many vendors to market their products and services. As a provider of training and services, even I finally relented and choose to use the language of my audience (principal data scientist and chief data officer advisor) in order to reach them.

    I think the bigger problem is that software solutions and short-courses (even at major universities) are claiming they will make you a data scientist or “rock star,” which simply isn’t true. While good tools or courses can help, you don’t become a pro golfer by purchasing the best clubs or taking a course from Tiger Woods. These can help start you on the path to success. But great golfers play for years before even approaching lower tier pro status.

    However, just as great golfers (and musicians, artists and real rock stars) have worked many years to achieve their status, you must invest many years in real-world data and analytic projects, both failing and succeeding, to deserve a title like data scientist, in my estimation.

    Thanks for raising the flag on this topic! Always enjoy your articles!

    All the best,
    Stephen McDaniel

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