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Where A Historian Finds Common Cause With A Deceased Statistician

July 21, 2010

I hold the field of statistics in high esteem. This derives from two sources. A former friend of mine, a philosopher, has a strong interest in probability. I don’t speak to him anymore, but I admire, remotely, his work on teasing out the relationship between probability and knowledge. Deeper still, my admiration for the study of probability and statistics has its source in my undergraduate chemistry degree—or more accurately an educational deficiency in relation to that degree.

Since the study of chemistry involves a great deal of knowledge about statistics (especially regression and error calculations), you would think that earning the degree would involve at least a minor, or its equivalent, in statistics courses. It doesn’t—or at least it didn’t at the University of Missouri when I was a student there. Although one studies calculus through differential equations, no statistics courses were required for my degree. But an unintended consequence of that lacuna is that I have since developed a regret for what I never fully learned. That regret fed both the specific admiration I have for my lost friend’s professional interest and a respect for news in relation to statistics.

The latter caused me to read this NYT obituary on David Blackwell—“a statistician and mathematician who wrote groundbreaking papers on probability and game theory”—with keen interest. His educational story—the offspring of minimally educated parents in rural IL, humble aspirations, a growing understanding of his mathematical talent, the racism he encountered in the academy, and eventual invitation as the first black scholar to join the National Academy of the Sciences—is truly inspiring. But this passage in the obituary, covering his philosophy of research, caught my attention (underlines mine):

Mr. Blackwell described himself as a “dilettante” in a 1983 interview for “Mathematical People,” a collection of profiles and interviews. “Basically, I’m not interested in doing research and I never have been,” he said. “I’m interested in understanding, which is quite a different thing. And often to understand something you have to work it out yourself because no one else has done it.”

This description of research fits my experience. You look into something you want to understand—in my case Mortimer Adler, the great books idea, the Advanced Placement Program, democracy, liberalism, culture, anti-intellectualism, culture, etc.—and you work it out for yourself. You then record what your findings in a story. The only difference between Mr. Blackwell and myself on this is on ~how~ the findings are recorded (that recording being dictated by the topic at hand, professional norms, and personal preferences).

May we hold onto, or develop, Mr. Blackwell’s interest in understanding new and old things. And may we all seek to share what we find with others. – TL


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