What Is the Difference Between Machine Learning and Traditional Statistics?

In the world of data science, two terms often come up: machine learning and statistics. While some may mistakenly believe that these terms are interchangeable, they actually represent distinct approaches to analyzing data. In this article, I will explore the actual difference between machine learning and statistics, shedding light on their unique purposes and methodologies.

Machine learning and statistics have both been used to understand and make predictions about data, but they have different goals and methodologies. Machine learning focuses on creating models that can make accurate predictions, while statistics aims to infer relationships between variables in the data. To truly understand the difference between these two approaches, it is important to delve deeper into their purposes and applications.

The Purpose of Machine Learning

Machine learning is primarily concerned with creating models that can make accurate predictions based on data. These models are designed to learn from patterns in the data and make predictions about future outcomes. Machine learning algorithms are often used in situations where traditional statistical methods may not be as effective, such as when dealing with large and complex datasets.

One of the key characteristics of machine learning models is their emphasis on predictive accuracy. These models prioritize making accurate predictions over providing explanations or insights into the underlying relationships within the data. Machine learning models can range from simple algorithms like linear regression to more complex ones like neural networks.

The Purpose of Statistics

Statistics, on the other hand, is the mathematical study of data. It involves analyzing and interpreting data to draw inferences and make conclusions about the population from which the data is sampled. Statistics is often used to understand relationships between variables and test hypotheses.

Statistical models are used to create a mathematical representation of the relationships within the data. These models can be used for inference, predicting future values, or both. Unlike machine learning models, statistical models often prioritize interpretability and understanding the underlying relationships within the data.

Statistical Models vs Machine Learning – Linear Regression Example

To illustrate the difference between statistical models and machine learning, let’s consider the example of linear regression. Linear regression is a statistical method commonly used to model the relationship between a dependent variable and one or more independent variables.

In statistical modeling, linear regression is used to understand the relationship between variables and make inferences about the population. The goal is not just to make accurate predictions but also to determine the significance and robustness of the model parameters.

In machine learning, linear regression can also be used for prediction. However, the emphasis is on finding the best performance on a test set rather than understanding the underlying relationships. Machine learning models, including linear regression, may sacrifice interpretability for predictive power.

Differences in Computational Tractability

Another difference between machine learning and statistics lies in their computational tractability. Classical statistical modeling was originally designed for datasets with a few dozen input variables and small to moderate sample sizes. As the number of variables per subject increases, statistical inferences become less precise, and the boundary between statistical and machine learning approaches becomes blurred.

Machine learning, on the other hand, is designed to handle high-dimensional datasets with a large number of input variables. Machine learning algorithms can effectively capture complex relationships in the data, even when the data is gathered without a carefully controlled experimental design.

Comparing Traditional Statistics to Machine Learning

To compare traditional statistics to machine learning, let’s consider a simulation of gene expression in two phenotypes. In traditional statistics, we would use a generalized linear model to test for statistically significant differences in mean expression between the phenotypes. This approach focuses on inference and allows us to compute a quantitative measure of confidence in the discovered relationships.

In machine learning, we could use a random forest classifier to predict the phenotype without assuming a probabilistic model for the data. The emphasis is on prediction and finding patterns in the data that can generalize to unseen samples.

While both approaches yield similar results in terms of identifying dysregulated genes, the methodologies and focus differ. Traditional statistics provide interpretability and confidence measures, while machine learning prioritizes predictive accuracy and generalizability.


In conclusion, machine learning and statistics are distinct approaches to analyzing data. Machine learning focuses on creating models that can accurately predict future outcomes, while statistics aims to understand relationships between variables and make inferences about the population.

While these two approaches share some similarities, such as the use of probability and data analysis, they differ in their purposes and methodologies. Machine learning emphasizes predictive accuracy and is well-suited for complex and high-dimensional datasets. Statistics, on the other hand, prioritizes interpretability and inference, making it valuable in understanding relationships within the data.

Both machine learning and statistics have their place in the field of data science, and understanding the difference between them is crucial for selecting the right approach for a given problem. By recognizing their unique purposes and methodologies, we can leverage the power of both machine learning and statistics to gain valuable insights from data.

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