What Research Nerds Are Thankful For
Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on all things that make our lives rich and rewarding, and my friend and colleague Henry (the farmer for whom I work on Saturdays) got me thinking about what I am thankful for in my work specifically, and in a new way.
He asked us to think about who or what we are thankful for. His rule and guide for answering was to think beyond the trite and predictable (family or health) and instead think of events or people in our past who did something—or didn’t do something—that changed our lives, and in looking back, we now feel grateful.
Applying this question to the work of market research and that of my colleagues, I thought of five things we can all be especially grateful for, as they make our work easier, more productive, more interesting, and therefore more gratifying.
- Free government data. The U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve, the National Institutes of Health … and many other U.S. agencies … collect some of the most richly valuable data and develop some of the most rigorous methods of social research. All this data and all these methods belongs to us—me and you. We use it and benefit from it every single day in our research. Be thankful for this treasure trove of free government data!
- Cheap survey tools. Deploying surveys used to be a more manual process, laying out questions on paper, or buying (and learning and programming) complicated CATI or CAPI systems. Now there are lots of powerful and easy tools that make surveys a breeze and beautiful as well. The best ones are not free, but all of them are surprisingly cheap. It is now easier than ever to collect, clean, and validate data, even using complicated experimental designs for choice modeling. Be thankful for these new tools!
- Open source software. In the 1970s a new computing language called S was developed at Bell Labs and in the 1990s it morphed into R, which is now an open-source (entirely free) programming language for statistical computing. The developers describe it as an “environment within which statistical techniques are implemented … with software facilities for data manipulation, calculation and graphical display.” R has changed the way we do research. Be thankful for it, and for the dedicated statisticians and programmers who brought it to life!
- Microsoft Office. What? Be thankful for Office? Say whatever you want, this is software we use every day, and almost every minute of the day, and it takes only a minute of reflection to realize how simple, streamlined, and powerful it makes our work. Cut and paste is a miracle, seamlessly moving content from one program to another. Think of all the ingenious things you do (or should do) in Excel—listing, sorting, calculating. I’m even thankful for PowerPoint, which I use every day as well!
- Charles Sanders Peirce. This 19th century philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist was one of my favorites in graduate school when I was learning about pragmatism. But it turns out he also helped establish the foundations of modern inferential statistics with its focus on probabilities and randomization. His “frequentist” approach is what we (and you) use every single day when we talk about statistical significance. Be thankful for the foundational work of Peirce that gave us our working mathematical tools!
Of course I’m thankful for you, as well—our customers and colleagues and our competitors too. You give us the opportunities and the reasons for what we do, all of which are deeply gratifying. So thank you … and Happy Thanksgiving from Versta Research.