Schlep blindness in statistics


This is yet another outstanding post by Paul Graham, this time on “Schlep Blindness”. He talks about how there are great startup ideas that no one considers because they are too much of a “schlep” (a tedious unpleasant task). He talks about how most founders of startups want to put up a clever bit of code they wrote and just watch the money flow in. But of course it doesn’t work like that, you need to advertise, interact with customers, raise money, go out and promote your work, fix bugs at 3am, etc. 

In academia there is a similar tendency to avoid projects that involve a big schlep. For example, it is relatively straightforward to develop a mathematical model, work out the parameter estimates, and write a paper. But it is a big schlep to then write fast code that implements that method, debug the code, dummy proof the code, fix bugs submitted by users, etc. Rafa’s post, Hadley’s interview, and the discussion Rafa linked to all allude to this issue. Particularly the fact that the schlep, the long slow slog of going through a new data type or writing a piece of usable software is somewhat undervalued. 

I think part of the problem is our academic culture and heritage, which has traditionally put a very high premium on being clever and a relatively low premium on being willing to go through the schlep. As applied statistics touches more areas and the number of users of statistical software and ideas grows, the schlep becomes just as important as the clever idea. If you aren’t willing to put in the time to code your methods up and make them accessible to other investigators, then who will be? 

To bring this back to the discussion inspired by Rafa’s post, I wonder if applied statistics journals could increase their impact, encourage more readership from scientific folks, and support a broader range of applied statisticians if there was a re-weighting of the importance of cleverness and schlep? As Paul points out: 

 In addition to their intrinsic value, they’re like undervalued stocks in the sense that there’s less demand for them among founders. If you pick an ambitious idea, you’ll have less competition, because everyone else will have been frightened off by the challenges involved.