One of my colleagues at Berkeley didn’t return library books. He kept them in his office, as if he owned them. He didn’t pay bills, either: He stuck them in his desk drawer. He was smart and interesting but after he failed to show up at a lunch date — no explanation, no apology — I stopped having lunch with him. He died several years ago. At his memorial service, at the Berkeley Faculty Club, one of the speakers mentioned his non-return of library books and non-payment of bills as if they were amusing eccentricities! I’m sure they were signs of a bigger problem. He did no research, no scholarly work of any sort. When talking about science with him — a Berkeley professor in a science department — it was like talking to a non-scientist.
David Freedman, a Berkeley statistics professor who died recently, was more influential. He is best known for a popular introductory textbook. The work of his I found most interesting was his comments on census adjustment: He was against adjusting the census to remove bias caused by undercount. This was only slightly less ridiculous than not returning library books — and far more harmful, because his arguments were used by Republicans to block census adjustment. TheÂ undercounted tended to vote Democrat. The similarity with my delinquent colleague is the very first line in Freedman’s obituary: He “fought for three decades to keep the United States census on a firm statistical foundation.” Please. A Berkeley statistics professor, I have no idea who, must have written or approved that statement!
The obituary elaborates on this supposed contribution:
“The census turns out to be remarkably good, despite the generally bad press reviews,” Freedman and Wachter wrote in a 2001 paper published in the journal Society. “Statistical adjustment is unlikely to improve the accuracy, because adjustment can easily put in more error than it takes out.”
There are two kinds of error: variance and bias. The adjustment would surely increase variance and almost surely decrease bias. The quoted comments ignore this. They are a modern Let Them Eat Cake.
Few people hoard library books, but Freedman’s misbehavior is common. I blogged earlier about a blue-ribbon nutrition committee that ignored evidence that didn’t come from a double-blind trial. Late in his career, Freedman spent a great deal of time criticizing other people’s work. Maybe his critiques did some good but I thought they were obvious (the assumptions of the statistical method weren’t clearly satisfied — who knew?) and that it was lazy the way he would merely show that the criticized work (e.g., earthquake prediction) fell short of perfection and fail to show how it related to other work in its field — whether it was an improvement or not. As they say, he could see the cost of everything and the value of nothing. That he felt comfortable spending most of his time doing this, and his obituary would praise it (“the skeptical conscience of statistics”), says something highly unflattering about modern scientific culture.
For reasonable comments about census adjustment, see Eriksen, Eugene P., Kadane, Joseph B., and Tukey, John W. (1989). Adjusting the 1980 census of population and housing. JASA, 84, 927-943.