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It occurred to me that, while I've pieced together some ideas over the years about the differences between statistics and biostatistics, I've never heard a formal explanation. What is the distinction between these two disciplines (currently)? And why did this distinction begin in the first place?

EDIT: I've not been specific enough in my original question. I understand that biostatistics is the application and development of statistics in the biomedical field. But what are some specific examples of the distinctions? For example, what distinguishes graduate education in the two fields? What is the purpose of having distinct academic departments for the two disciplines (a distinction I see in no other field)?

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biostat = application of statistical methodologies to biology ? –  robin girard Nov 10 '10 at 18:16
Right, but there are applications of statistical methodologies in every discipline. Why does biostatistics exist (in the US, at least) as a semi-distinct discipline? –  Matt Parker Nov 10 '10 at 18:24
well, one other example is econometrics, which also is seen as a distinct profession. –  kjetil b halvorsen Dec 21 '12 at 18:34

5 Answers 5

When I look at the Wikipedia entry for biostatistics, the relation to biometrics doesn't seem so obvious to me since, historically, biometrics was more concerned with characterizing individuals by some phenotypes of interest, with large applications in population genetics (as exemplified by the work of Fisher), whereas part of this discipline now focus on biometric systems (whose objectives are the "recognition or identification of individuals based on some physical or behavioral characteristics that are intrinsically unique for each individual", according to Boulgouris et al., Biometrics, 2010). Anyway, there still are reviews like Biometrika and Biometrics; although I read the latter on an irregular basis, most articles focus on "biostatistical" theoretical or applied work. The same applies for Biostatistics. By "biostatistical" applications, I mean that it has to do with applications or models related to the biomedical domain, in a wide sense (biology, health science, genetics, etc.).

According to the Encyclopedia of Biostatistics (2005, 2nd ed.),

(...) As is clear from the above examples, biostatistics is problem oriented. It is specifically directed to questions that arise in biomedical science. The methods of biostatistics are the methods of statistics -- concepts directed at variation in observations and methods for extracting information from observations in the face of variation from various sources, but notably from variation in the responses of living organisms and particularly human beings under study. Biostatistical activity spans a broad range of scientific inquiry, from the basic structure and functions of human beings, through the interactions of human beings with their environment, including problems of environmental toxicities and sanitation, health enhancement and education, disease prevention and therapy, the organization of health care systems and health care financing.

In sum, I think that Biostatistics is part of a super-family--Statistics--, and share most of its methods, but has a more focused area of interest (hence, an historical background, specific designs, and a general theoretical framework) and dedicated modeling strategies.

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To quote the "Encyclopedic dictionary of mathematics" by Kiyosi Itô (ed.):

In many applied fields there exist systems of statistical methods which have been developed specifically for the respective fields, and although all of them are based essentially on the same general principles of statistical inference, each has its own special techniques and procedures. Specific names have been invented, such as biometrics, econometrics, psychometrics, technometrics, sociometrics, etc.
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Biostatistics, biometrics and biometry are synonyms. Medical statistics (sometimes called 'clinical biostatistics' for no clear reason) is a subset of these.

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I really don't think that biostatistics and biometrics are synonyms. Biometrics includes face recognition, finger print analysis, while biostatistics involved clinical trial design and so on... Similar names only. –  carlosdc Nov 10 '10 at 20:14
That usage of 'biometrics' is an unfortunate neologism. See tibs.org/interior.aspx?id=290 –  onestop Nov 10 '10 at 20:32
This isn't really addressing the question, however. I know what the definition of biostatistics is, but I don't know how it differs from statistics in practice, in education, in philosophy, etc. –  Matt Parker Nov 10 '10 at 20:52

As someone who took courses from the Statistics department of a university which did not offer a Biostatistics major and worked in clinical trials with biostatisticians and read many papers written by biostatisticians, I can offer a particular perspective. I see biostatistics as a field that applies a subset of standard statistical techniques to clinical research. Biostatistics focuses on categorical variables and logistic regression to a greater degree than statistics applied to subjects studied in the physical sciences and engineering. Biostatistics tends to seek answers to binary questions, such as these: 1) Is this subject healthy or sick? or 2) does this drug cause more good than harm? It often uses discrete independent variables such as whether a subject was alive or dead at the end of the study. This isn't an ironclad distinction, though: biostatistics also uses survival analysis, which involves measuring a continuous variable, i.e., the length of time to an event of biological significance.

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Biostatistics also makes unique contributions to statistical theory, and the links between study design and inference. Equivalence tests are an example of the former, and counterfactual causal estimation a la James Robins, Sander Greenland, etc. (within epi/biostats) is an example of the former. –  Alexis Jul 1 '14 at 0:50

There is not a significant difference between statistics and biostatistics. In my definition, biostatistics is the application of statistics to biology. So a Biostatistician has a relatively strong command in biology, well at least enough to understand how to apply his statistics to biology. It would be the same concept as Artstatistics, or Sociostatistics; application of statistics to art or statistics to sociology, respectively. Biostatistics is simply the statistics of BIOLOGY. So you need a command of biology and statistics to do well as a Biostatistician.'Tis all.

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Biostatistics is part of epidemiology and medical science. –  Alexis Jul 1 '14 at 15:38

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