The Rao Centennial

Today, September 10, 2020, marks the one hundredth birthday of a titan of statistics, Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao, or as he is lovingly known, C.R. Celebrated by popular media around the world, this momentous occasion marks the eightieth year of contributions to statistics, and he shows no signs of stopping. His seminal contributions to classical statistics are numerous, and they include some of my very favorite results, including the Cramér-Rao lower bound and the Rao-Blackwell theorem. He also developed the Lagrange multiplier test, a technique from econometrics widely used but narrowly credited to the great man. I would argue that Rao is the most important living statistician, and as it happens to be, I’ll continue a campaign of advocacy for important living intellectuals, as they’re my superheroes.

A portrait of Prof C R Rao.

Prodigy with Conscience and Advocate for Truth

Mathematically adroit from an early age, Rao dedicates his historical treatise Statistics and Truth to his mother who lighted the lamp early each morning to ensure his studies. An excellent low down on the correct and many incorrect uses for statistics, his book skillfully and comfortably scores a victory for our field, particularly in statistical forensics, something akin to explainable artificial intelligence. As I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere, deceit and fabrication riddled the scientific commune before the invention of statistical forensics, even within elite circles, such as those of Galileo, Newton, Mendel, and the like. In some cases, the unrepeatability or unlikely data sequencing were statistically sophomoric; other cases reveal outright fraud. In a world of confusion and deception, any tool capable of unearthing truth is a valuable one. Rao reiterates the intrinsic worth of statistics as a means to expel occlusion and uncertainty throughout his works, and in penning a self-portrait for PBS’ celebrated Faces of Science: Nova, he returns to these laudable objectives:

…in real life […] we have to devise ways of using uncertain knowledge to our best advantage. We are taking risks when we choose a partner for life, decide on a particular career, or make an investment. The key to the problem of taking wise decisions under uncertainty lies in quantifying uncertainty and specifying the risk we are willing to take in making a decision. This is the subject matter of statistics, the new discipline conceived and developed in the last century.

In the years following the collapse of British imperialism in India, Rao spearheaded initiatives to guarantee a statistical presence in Indian government, academics, and engineering. Never forgetting his home country, he formulated the International Statistical Educational Centre within the International Statistical Institute (of which he was president for a time) to facilitate partnering of third world students with first world statisticians in something akin to internship.

A Centenarian with a Cause

Rao continues to work with epidemiologists, city planners, meteorologists and climate scientists, and many others who wield his techniques in multivariate statistical analysis. He also advises numerous health and humanitarian organizations, such as the Indian Heart Association, and maintains a presence at Pennsylvania State University where he directs the Center for Multivariate Analysis. I’m certain even in the midst of COVID that he’ll continue to bring his incredible analytical faculties to bear on the most serious challenges of today. But let’s first celebrate a toast to this gentle giant of statistics.

Contextualizing Statistics I: Roger L. Berger

It was my great pleasure a few weeks ago to interview statistician Roger Lee Berger, co-author of Statistical Inference, perhaps an indispensable text in statistics higher education.  Roger, a Professor Emeritus of Arizona State University, calls desert Phoenix his home these days.  A link to the recording, as well as an annotated transcript follow.

I connected with Roger some years ago while considering a doctorate program in statistics, and much to my disappointment, I learned he had plans for retirement.  I’ve nonetheless been able to lunch with him on occasion, as my in-laws pepper the suburbs of Phoenix.  I correctly surmised a keen intellect and enthusiasm for the statistical trade hallmarks, past and present, but I was more struck by the humility, warmth, and graciousness apparent immediately in the friendship we have begun to cultivate.  I’ve long believed that academics ought strive for virtue, as they steward knowledge, science, and thus much of the highest achievements humanity can attain.  Roger didn’t disappoint.



Introduction to Roger

Mathematical Mastery

Disco Ball Computer Science: FORTRAN and Cards

Research in Subset Selection

Play for the Statistician: Bridge

An Outlier Beard

Statistical Inference: A Duet of Best Friendship

1970s: Statistical Theory Was Stayin’ Alive

Computing in Statistics Education

Twentieth Century Statistics: State-of-the-Art

Education: Online or Brick-and-Mortar?

Hardest Statistical Concept in Teaching

Graduate Student Spread in Statistics Courses

Motivating the Cauchy

Estimators Abound 

Evangelical Statistics

Onward and Upward in Retirement

Introduction to Roger

return to top

NP Slagle: Welcome to AlgoStats, a space that’s safe for machine learning, data science, artificial intelligence, and a litany of others in the taxonomy of statistics, for statistics is back in a big way. Today, it’s my great honor to have Roger Berger, Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. Dr. Berger studied mathematics as an undergrad in Kansas, then statistics at Purdue under Shanti Gupta. While faculty at Florida State, North Carolina State, and Arizona State Universities, he supervised eleven students and published roughly fifty journal articles, including a textbook co-authored with the late, great George Casella.  That book happens to be called Statistical Inference, the text required for mathematical statistics courses I completed during my first foray into grad school. I credit this textbook, along with my professor at the time, Danny Dyer, with jump starting my career in statistics, machine learning and data science. So Professor Berger, a very big welcome.

Roger Berger: Thank you Neil. I’m glad to be here today.

NPS: Yeah, there are a lot of interesting areas that I want to try to cover, and it’s going to be curious to see how we do on time. I want to begin with your personal journey. Who are you? Where do you come from?

RLB: I grew up in a small farming community in Northwest Kansas. I went to the University of Kansas for undergraduate, as you mentioned, and was a major in mathematics, although I essentially had a minor in computer science.  Back then, the University of Kansas did not have an undergraduate degree in computer science, so it wasn’t a formal minor, but I had about twenty-seven hours in computer science as well as the mathematics.  Then I went to Purdue for graduate school in statistics, and immediately after that, I went to Florida State University for my first teaching position. After five years, I went to North Carolina State University, department of statistics for twenty-two years, and following that, I went to Arizona State University for thirteen more years.  I retired from Arizona State University a year ago in May.

NPS: That is certainly their loss, to have such a storied and well-qualified professor for statistics.

return to top

Mathematic Mastery

NPS: I’d be interested in knowing a little bit more about what interested you in mathematics? What was it that drew you to mathematics? Was it just native talent? Or, well obviously that has to be there, sort of a prerequisite, but it obviously was also fun for you.

RLB: Yes. I always enjoyed the mathematics. I didn’t have to work terribly hard at it. It wasn’t ever a struggle, but it was fascinating to me. I actually started my undergraduate at University of Kansas as a physics major, but after about three semesters, I realized I was enjoying and understanding the mathematics much more than the physics, so I changed over to mathematics at that time. Also, in my sophomore year is when I started taking computer science courses, and I enjoyed them greatly, and by the same token, I continued to take a lot of computer science courses also.

NPS: That part, actually is new to me, so I’m very interested in digging in there, but first I wanted to ask the question, in the midst of taking these physics classes, which classes in mathematics did you find most interesting?

RLB: These were just when I was a freshman and sophomore, so I was just taking three semesters of calculus, and my fourth semester would have been differential equations. These were just the introductory course. Later on, the courses I really enjoyed were real analysis, that was the one that really was the eye-opening, the first time I was asked to write proofs, and I just found it fascinating that people would think of doing things like proving that the real numbers existed and stuff like that, which it seemed obvious.  Real Analysis, I enjoyed numerical analysis, I didn’t enjoy differential equations very much. The course that I had trouble with was modern algebra (editor’s note: sometimes abstract algebra). It was taught just definition, after definition, after proof, after definition, with no motivation whatsoever.

NPS: No geometric interpretation?

RLB: No. Certainly not that. All the rings and fields and so on were just a jumble of definitions. That course, I did struggle with.

NPS: Yeah. It was interesting, when I was in graduate school the first time, it was an algebraist that approached me, wanting me to study under him, and the way that social desirability worked for me, I didn’t hold out for the analysis professors that were the ones that definitely spoke to my fire a lot more so.

return to top

Disco Ball Computer Science: Cards and FORTRAN


NPS: The other part that I wanted to return to is computer science. What motivated you to take the classes? And also, I’m sure that my listeners, a lot of whom are going to be millennials and younger, who have gotten degrees and advanced degrees in computer science, what was that like? What were those courses?

RLB: The reason I started taking computer science, as I said, I came from a very small rural school, and I knew nothing about computers. I knew nothing about programming computers. No introduction to computers at all in high school. I doubt there was a computer in my town. I don’t know what the bank used.  When I got to the University, one of my best friends, Dar Daily, was all about computers, and he started taking computing courses from the beginning. I was just interested in what he was doing, seeing him program, seeing him have sheets of output that he was pouring over and stuff like that, trying to figure out what went wrong with his program. It was because of Dar that I realized you could take classes. What were they? They were FORTRAN classes. The first two semesters back then were two semesters of FORTRAN programming, which I enjoyed. I thought it was fascinating to be able to write these programs, and make some big machine the size of a very large room do things for you.  How was it done? It was with punch cards. You handed in your deck of … well first of all, you created your deck of punch cards. That involved learning how to fight with a key punch machine, which if you’ve never done that, they’re a beast. Literally as well as figuratively. Then, you hand in your deck, and then you go away for 24 hours, because things are put into a queue, and your program will get run probably within the next 24 hours. You go back, and you get your output, and it’s one page. It has your name on it, and it says, “Error number 3745,” and you basically have hardly any idea what that means. So, you go and pour over your program. I forget, somehow there was some clue as to where things went wrong. You would pour over that, and fix what you thought needed fixing, and you would hand in the new deck of cards and wait another 24 hours.  It encouraged understanding what you were doing before you ever sat down to write the program. None of this just put in some things and see what happens, and if it doesn’t do exactly what you think it will, try something else, because you get instant response, and you can try 10 things in the next 10 minutes and see which ones work best.

NPS: Whereas then it would have been like trying to call a customer service switchboard where they say, “Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.”

RLB: Yes. The wait time is 24 hours.

NPS: Right. If you wish to stay on the line, do so now.

RLB: So, that’s the way programming was for me all the time as an undergraduate. As a graduate student at Purdue, we started using terminals, but it was still a batch processing. I mean, you would write a program and submit it, and you would get output hours later.

NPS: Was this also in FORTRAN?

RLB: If I was programming something for myself to calculate something, it was in FORTRAN, because that’s what I knew best. If it was … the statistical package that they had was BMD, which there used to be a sequel to BMD called BMDP, and I don’t know if it even exists anymore.

NPS: It’s not familiar to me.

RLB: But that was the program we used. I do remember that, as I was just about to finish my Ph.D. in 1977, I went to an ENAR (Eastern North American Region International Biometric Society) meeting at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That was my first meeting that I went to on my own and presented a paper and so on. There was this buzz around the meeting about something called SAS, which of course was developed in North Carolina. There was discussion of that at the ENAR meeting, and I had no clue what that was. Hardly anybody else did either, because SAS started in the late 1970s as I recall.

NPS: Right, right. And has since spread like wildfire. When I was in my first job with Bell Helicopter, I was exposed to FORTRAN code, and though this was obviously coding that we would do either on terminals or on PCs, but there was still the legacy of having to start the code in the seventh or eighth column, I think. Because the other columns are reserved for error messages.

RLB: Yeah. The commands started in column seven. Before that was a line, command, or whatever they called them, statement number so that you could name a statement number 100, and have goto 100, and it would branch to that line of code. That’s what was before. That was in columns one through five. In column six was a continuation column. If your line went over 80 characters, if your line of code went over 80 characters, you had to put a symbol in column six to tell it that this line was a continuation of the previous line.  As you can tell, I still remember FORTRAN perfectly. I could sit down and write a FORTRAN program right now. Whereas, when I program in R or SAS or anything, I have to have a manual with me or an example program to get me going. I don’t have it memorized.

NPS: I can say that even in high tech, that generally is the case, or at least it’s been my experience in programming in different languages, I just have to use Google, which is the best possible manual.

RLB: Yes, I said have a manual, but I do have manuals bookmarked on my computer, and that’s where I go to look up things.

Research in Subset Selection

return to top

NPS: Right, right. Wow. Very interesting things. One question I did want to ask you, I tried actually to get a copy of your dissertation, but I had some trouble doing that. Can you speak to the, basically its content and what it was that you were studying in graduate school? Maybe at a high level? Because a lot of the listeners may not know the more specific statistics jargon.

RLB: Purdue was a very fairly theoretical statistics department, and the statistics I was studying was statistical theory, fairly mathematical. I had to take the same qualifying exams as the graduate students in mathematics in probability and in measure theory and in complex analysis. Correction, the exam that I took that was the same as the graduate students was in measure theory and complex analysis. Then, there was a separate qualifying exam in probability and statistics for the statistics graduate students. It was very mathematical, very theoretical for the students who, for listeners who are familiar, the introductory text was Hogg and Craig in mathematical theory, the next text was by Lehmann, Testing Statistical Hypotheses. Other courses I took were in linear models, and multivariate analysis, and decision theory, and major theoretic probability of course, stochastic processes, those were the main courses besides seminar courses.  My dissertation, as you mentioned, my dissertation advisor was Shanti Gupta. His area of expertise that he basically began was called subset selection. Subset selection is a very easy to understand problem. Suppose you observe responses on five different treatments, and you want to decide which treatment has the highest mean. So, subset selection is one way of formulating that problem to answer that question. Which of the populations has the highest mean?  I was doing some decision theoretic analyses of subset selection procedures in my dissertation. I wanted to work with Professor Gupta. I thought he was a great guy. I thought, because he was the department chair, the head of the department at Purdue, he could probably help me get a job when I finished, which was certainly the case. I knew enough about subset selection to think that I could write a dissertation in it. But, I kind of knew from the start that I wasn’t going to work in subset selection for the rest of my life.  I probably wrote three or four papers based on my dissertation and later work on subset selection, but within a few years, I wandered off into other topics.

NPS: Fascinating. It turns out that subset selection is very, very topical. The problem of course has been reformulated and restated, but NP-hardness or NP-completeness can be boiled down to the problem of trying to find an ideal subset. In some of the work that my department has done, actually one of my coworkers, you’d be interested in talking to him, because he has come up with an unbiased estimator for optimal policy assignment. But of course, this is, and I’m guessing, based on what you said, that each of the data points are coming from ostensibly a different population, so that there is a treatment and control comparison, and then there’s some feature vector X that you’re conditioning on, and then you try to figure out which selection would give you the best result? Do you select treatment or control for this particular observed vector? So, it’s similar.

RLB: It’s related, I’m sure. It sounds more complicated than what I was doing.

NPS: I’m not explaining it well, it’s actually really, really simple. Very, very interesting.

return to top

Play for a Statistician: Bridge

NPS: We’ll come back to the state of education and research in a few moments, but I wanted to ask you your interest in bridge, I remember we talked about it over one of our lunches. Do you find it fascinating from the perspective of a statistician to try to estimate at least, or at least do a back of the envelope calculation on how probable it is that you’re going to be able to get the hand that you want?

RLB: No.

NPS: Okay. Good, good. It was actually kind of what I was expecting.

RLB: We played cards at home from as long as I can remember with my parents and siblings. My aunts and uncles and so on would play cards when we got together on Sundays and so on. So, playing cards was just a social thing to do. When I went to the university, and was living in a dorm, one way of having social interaction was to go down to the lobby and play cards, and bridge was the usual game, as well as hearts. So, I learned to play bridge by just watching other people play bridge in the lobby at the university. Then, when I went to graduate school at Purdue, it turned out that there was a lunchtime bridge game, faculty and graduate students would play bridge, and that’s where I really got into it. George Casella and I and some others would go to the local bridge club and play bridge once or twice a week. Contract bridge, that’s a little bit more serious bridge. That’s when I really enjoyed it, because of the company as well as the bridge. I continued to play bridge at Florida State. Chuck McCulloch was my main partner there, and I played for a few years when we moved to North Carolina, but that faded away. I haven’t played bridge in thirty years. It was just a pleasant social, intellectually challenging, but I never even semi-formally was calculating probabilities about anything. You learn what to expect and what not to expect, but there’s no formal numeric calculation of probabilities at all. So, fairly first order. I would have been interested in bridge had I been an English major. It had nothing to do with the math.

return to top

An Outlier Beard


NPS: Right, right. That totally makes sense. Speaking of George Casella, I do definitely want to move on to the book in a moment, but one last question from this section is, the beard. The beard is something that I found in looking at teachers’ reviews of you online. The beard does get mentioned, and of course, the reviews are generally quite positive.

RLB: About the beard?

NPS: About the beard, yeah. Not the man wearing it. So, I’m curious about it, because it clearly takes some time to grow a beard. Listeners can go to the website and see the picture that I’ll post of the two of us, and I’m almost clean shaven and he has this beard that I’m envious of.

RLB: So, the question I always get asked is, “How long have you had the beard?” And the answer is 49 years. I grew a beard as soon as I left high school. Actually I grew a beard between my junior and senior year, but was told that I could not have a beard in high school, which I knew full well. So, after one day in my senior year, I shaved my beard off. Then, as soon as I left high school, I grew a beard, and I’ve had it ever since. That’s 49 years. Next summer will be the fiftieth anniversary of my beard.

NPS: Are you going to dye it golden for a week to celebrate?

RLB: No, I don’t think so. I just think I look better with the beard. Of course, when I started, this was 1969, and there were social implications of growing a beard and rebelling against the machine and things like that I suppose, but I just think I would rather have a beard. I have a very slender face, if you saw my high school yearbook picture, you would see I have this very slender face, or at least the last time I saw it, I did. So, I thought the beard made me look better. And also, it’s easy to take care of. It gets trimmed once a month or so, and that’s it. None of this getting up every day and spending five or ten minutes in front of the mirror, it’s just a lot of wasted time.

NPS: I’m always fascinated to hear high schools and institutions of that order ruling out beards, when you look at most of the presidents before the twentieth century, after Johnson, around Andrew Jackson, they started having beards.

RLB: Well, I remember exactly, at that first day of my senior year, when I had my summer beard. We had an assembly, and the principal was up there, and he said, “I notice some of you young men have facial hair. If facial hair were allowed in this high school, I would have facial hair. Do not return tomorrow with facial hair.”  Basically I was a very good kid and didn’t break the rules, so I shaved off my beard that night.

NPS: You were compliant up to a point.

RLB: Yes.

return to top

Statistical Inference: A Duet of Best Friendship


NPS: You mentioned George Casella earlier, very interested in digging into the book.  I had my copy actually upstairs. I meant to bring it down here, but the book, Statistical Inference. I just have to preface by saying that of all of the, I guess you can consider it partially introductory, and then it goes on to intermediate and some advanced material. Of all the textbooks that I’ve come across in statistics and really, probably in mathematics, I would say that the style of the prose, and the way the material is presented, it is one of the few textbooks that I revisit on a fairly regular basis. It actually sits on my nightstand. I want to hear more about the book. Where did it come from? Where was the decision coming from to write it?

RLB: To back up, George Casella was my classmate at Purdue in graduate school. He started one year before me, but after a year or so, he changed to the Ph.D. program, so we basically were in the Ph.D. program together. We graduated at the same time in 1977, and as I mentioned earlier, we played bridge together. He was my best friend in graduate school and continued to be after that. George and I would get together at meetings and so on after we went on our separate ways, just connect again and so on. We kept in touch all the time. In 1983, I believe, at an ENAR meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, he asked me if I would be interested in writing an introductory statistical inference book with him.  He had some ideas about why a new book was needed. As I mentioned earlier, the standard text at that time for master’s level statistical theory was Hogg and Craig. So, part of his ideas were perceived improvements on Hogg and Craig, which was the book at that time, and continued to be for many years. After thinking about it for a short while, I agreed to do this with him. I only did it because it was George, because he was my best friend, because I thought this would be enjoyable. I did not think that this was a good move to make at that point in my career. At that point, I was an associate professor without tenure, because I moved from Florida State to NC State, I had to give up the tenure that I had at Florida State.

NPS: Wow, that’s a big change.

RLB: And start that, not start it from scratch, but be untenured for a while. So I did not think this was a great career move. Writing a book doesn’t get you immediate stuff to put on your resume to convince somebody to give you tenure for example. But, it was only because it was George, and because I thought he had some good ideas, and because I had some similar ideas, that I agreed to do this. It took us seven years to write the book. The first edition came out in about 1990. I forget what the copyright date on it is, but it’s roughly 1990.  So, it took seven years. We worked on it off and on. Sometimes we made a lot of progress. Sometimes it was put aside for a year during that time. What you said about the writing style was heartwarming to me, because the main point, the two main points of the book were one, some additions and changes in content from Hogg and Craig, for example. Some things that we thought should be covered in an introductory text, which hadn’t been covered in our introductory courses. But, the other thing was to make it more of a textbook in that it wasn’t just theorems and proofs, but that there was explanation in between. We had both taught this level of course, and we had begun to understand where students had difficulties with various topics. So, in our book, we were going to try to help them through those difficulties to explain to them, “Now, look at what we just did, and why did we do it that way? This is a good idea to keep in mind if you have a similar problem, to think about things like this,” and so on.  Yes, it is probably more conversational than many textbooks. That means that you probably don’t cover as much material, if you’re taking time to do explanations like that, then that’s less space for theorems and proofs and things like that. But, anyway. We, of course, had no idea if it would be successful or not. You spend seven years writing a book and you put it out there, and you have no idea if anybody’s going to ever notice it. It turned out that it was incredibly well-received and continues to be one of the most used books at the master’s level for introductory statistics. I recently learned that not only in statistics departments, but also in business schools, is it used frequently.

NPS: Wow.

RLB: In what they would call an econometrics course. I got the phone call from a publisher who publishes business textbooks, and he said, “I heard that your book with George Casella is out of print, and we want to acquire it and revive it, because this is an essential text in business.” He was wrong. It wasn’t out of print. I don’t know where he got that information, but then he sent me some data, and it turns out that we sell about as many textbooks to business schools as we do to mathematics and statistics departments.  So, it was wonderful good luck. I mean, we had no idea that it would be so well-received, and we’re pleased that it has been, and certainly by far, that’s what I’m recognized for the most when I go to meetings and young people come up and start talking to me about the course that they had from the book. That’s very heartwarming.

NPS: Yeah. Those were the two, they were the first graduate level statistics classes that I’d had, mathematical statistics. And I absolutely loved the book. It is starting to wear on the pages, I look at it so much, and the conversational style, the jokes that you find in there, are actually very funny. Maybe I’m just a boring person, but I find the humor to be great in the book. Yeah. I believe that the hardcover copy of it now, if you try to find it on Amazon, it’s like $300.

RLB: Yes. It’s some ridiculous price.

NPS: You can get the soft cover, but at multiple departments where I’ve worked, at Microsoft, I’ve gotten people interested in the book, and in one of the departments, they ordered the book for everybody in the department, so that they could start reading it. There was a guy that I worked with who’s like a principal software guy there, and he said to me, “I notice that this book is really notation heavy.” And I was thinking, “Wow, you’re going to die if you look at a monograph.”

RLB: Yes. We tried not to be notation heavy.

NPS: So, you’ve answered a couple of these questions that I had pretty well, so the inclusion of Arthur Conan Doyle and his quotes.

RLB: That was all George’s doing. He was the Sherlock Holmes aficionado and he came up with the quotes for each chapter. Of course, I looked at them, and told him they were fine, but it’s just a little fun thing to start the chapter with, and because the Sherlock Holmes stuff is in the public domain, we didn’t have to get copyright permissions from anybody to use them. So, that worked out well, also. Anyway though, that was all George.

NPS: Wow. So, your friendship with George, do you have any words to sort of sum that up?

RLB: Well, George was a great friend, but he was also a great statistician. It’s amazing how much he did in so many different areas, how many students he directed and touched the lives of and so on. He and I wrote one book that I’m very proud of, but George actually wrote nine books with other authors as well as hundreds of journal articles and so on. He was a great collaborator.

NPS: So you’re saying he had nine other best friends behind your back, right?

RLB: Yeah. Some of them are good friends of mine, too. A funny story, when George died a few years ago, I had found a YouTube of someone speaking at a statistics conference, saying some nice words about George. He mentioned that George had asked him to be the co-author of Statistical Inference before he asked me.

NPS: Wonderful to hear.

RLB: Well, I knew that. So, I didn’t know he had asked this particular person, but I knew George had talked to some of his colleagues at Cornell, which would have probably made writing the book easier, to have somebody right there. It’s only my good luck that other people said no. But I wonder what the book would have looked like if it had been George and somebody else.  Anyway, George was a wonderful friend and a great statistician. He collaborated with people in agriculture and biology. At the end of his life, he was doing stuff in genomics and so on with the ag [editor’s note: short for “agriculture”] department and the medical school at the University of Florida. It was a great loss to statistics as well as to my friendship when George died.

NPS: Yeah. Sounds like a really remarkable gentleman.

RLB: And, we wrote three, or four, or five papers together, journal articles. They were always as much fun as the book, also. It was so much fun to collaborate with him and bounce ideas off of each other and so on. Those papers were always easy and great fun.

return to top

1970s: Statistical Theory Was Stayin’ Alive

NPS: Those professional relationships are very, very valuable. I’m hoping as I continue my career that I will find similar individuals. Moving on, statistics as a scientific pursuit. What would you say is, how would you characterize sort of the nature of the field when you fell into it? Sort of what was the state of the art? You mentioned decision theory and a couple of other topics. So, from your perspective?

RLB: When I got into it at Purdue and because I was at Purdue, like I mentioned, it was very theoretical. It was very decision theoretic oriented. It was very much about loss functions, and risk functions, and optimality properties, and you still see that in Statistical Inference, in our textbook. That’s how George and I were taught. That’s what we think are important topics. At Purdue, there was very little applications, there were a couple of statisticians who did the applied statistics with the other departments, the agriculture departments, the psychology, and nutrition and things like that.

NPS: But not much interdisciplinary?

RLB: But not much interdisciplinary. The interdisciplinary was with the math department one floor up in the building. That was interdisciplinary research for the statistics department at Purdue. So, that was my way, that is and was my way of looking at statistics, from a mathematical viewpoint and so on. Back then, the best journal to publish in was the Annals of Statistics. Journal of the American Statistical Association was down a few steps from the Annals of Statistics. That was just the training.

NPS: Right. I find that interesting, because I was watching, and I meant to send you a link to this. I was watching a video of C.R. Rao holding a seminar, this had been broadcast on PBS, I think maybe 1980, something like that, or 1981, 1982. So, it would have been close to the time that you defended your dissertation, or just a few years after that. He was making this comment, and I must say that I do disagree with this comment, as much as I think he is obviously a God in statistics, but he made the comment that people were probably mostly, or how did he say it? Young people were not going into statistics as a field to study because they wanted to solve deep statistical problems. That it had, in his judgment, more to do with solving the applied problems outside. I found that kind of interesting, because of, partly of what you just said, but also my interest in statistics. I mean, admittedly, it’s forty years later, but I found that interesting. I’ll hunt down that link and send it to you. It’s actually a very nice discussion between him and Chernoff is there and a few others.

RLB: Yeah. I’m surprised.

NPS: I was surprised.

RLB: In 1980. I mean now, I would believe that, but in 1980, the people I was in contact with were still doing statistics for statistics sake.

NPS: Right, right.

RLB: Very little applications.

return to top

Computing in Statistics Education

NPS: That’s certainly been my draw to statistics. It’s not because I’m interested in applying it, I don’t want to tell my tech lead that, but I’m more interested in solving problems that are statistical in nature. So, this is actually, this is kind of a broad question that I should have put under here. To what extent were you using PC, so you had these computer science courses that you took as an undergrad, and some as a graduate student. To what extent did having the PC and having studied computer science influence the statistics curricula that you would offer in your courses that you would teach? I guess early on, to start with.

RLB: Very little. I was usually teaching the theoretical statistics courses. Other people were usually teaching the applied statistics courses. And back then, the theoretical statistics courses were mathematical theoretics, not MCMC or things like that where you need computing power, that hadn’t been developed yet, or that wasn’t well-known. I used the computer, I was always the last adopter of new technology, I think.

NPS: You still don’t carry a cell phone.

RLB: When everybody else figured out how to make slides and use a projector, then I let them show me how to do it. I never was the first one to figure out how to use LaTeX I was the last one to use LaTeX after they figured it out, then they could teach me very quickly, and so on. In classes, only in the last years when I was teaching undergraduate statistics at Arizona State, and was teaching the introductory applied courses where you learn about t-tests and analysis of variance and so on, was I using statistical packages a lot, and the students were expected to do all their computing.

RLB: I think it’s great. I mean, the few applied type courses I had in graduate school, much of it was about clever shortcuts for computing sums of squares in an analysis of variance, and things like that, which is a total waste of time now.

NPS: Right, the numerical recipes.

RLB: If I look at a new textbook, and if they’re explaining the computational formula for sums of squares and an analysis of variance today, that’s ridiculous. You use a computer, because the computer, if you get the data in right, and you tell it to do the right thing, it’ll do the calculation correctly. Whereas if I’m doing it by hand, I’m going to make a mistake. So, when I was teaching introductory statistics for undergraduates in more recent years, they were expected to do all their homework using a computer package like Minitab or something. Of course that’s the way you do it. But I was never…

NPS: You were never all that thrilled about it.

RLB: I was never using it in my theoretical statistics classes. Those were about theory, not about computing.

NPS: Yeah. About pen and paper.

RLB: Exactly.

return to top

Twentieth Century Statistics: State-of-the-Art

NPS: That’s my kind of course, for sure. What would you say, over the course of, actually I guess, over the course of the past century. I was going ask over the course of your career, but if you look back at stats history in the twentieth century and in the early twenty-first century, what are the most significant results? And I guess I’d say certainly start with theoretic results.

RLB: Well, the last century encompasses a good deal of modern statistics. So, it even encompasses the development of maximum likelihood and things like that. I don’t know if R.A. Fisher invented maximum likelihood, but he certainly did a lot to popularize it. It involved the development of considering about hypothesis testing, the Neyman–Pearson lemma in the 1930s. It involved the other big theorems in mathematical statistics, the Rao–Blackwell theorem.

NPS: One of my favorites.

RLB: Development of sufficiency, and those kinds of ideas. The Lehmann–Scheffé theorem, and linear models and so on. All of those are huge benchmarks in the development of theoretical statistics. One of the things I enjoyed about being a student of statistics in the 1970s was that many of those people were still with us, and I got to meet them. One of my fond memories is, at Purdue, one of the Purdue symposiums was going on, and I was tasked with driving down to Indianapolis to pick up Jerzy Neyman from the airport and driving him back to Lafayette. Had him an hour in the car, with only him and Lucien La Cam. So, I met Jerzy Neyman, who was a wonderful guy. I met David Blackwell.  I’ve met C.R. Rao, although not very much. So a lot of these famous names, I met Henry Scheffé. So, a lot of these famous people that have theorems named after them were people I actually knew. Those were all big things. Then, I would say the other big developments are the recent things in Bayesian statistics, Monte Carlo Markov chains, Gibbs sampler and those kinds of things. Prior to that, the use of Bayesian procedures just relied on a few simple examples with conjugate families.

NPS: To make it analytically tractable?

RLB: That you could do the math for, and other than that, you couldn’t do it. Now, you can do Bayes on just about any model and any prior that you want to dream up by doing a simulation and using MCMC or something more sophisticated than that.

RLB: The really modern stuff, which is very important, such as artificial intelligence and neuro networks, and machine learning, and all that, I think that is playing a huge role in the use of statistics today. But, to be honest, I know very little about it. That came too late in my career for me to really understand it. I think it’s obvious that those are going to be huge, have a huge impact in the use of statistics, but I really can’t speak to why, or which is best, or what they mean, or anything like that.

NPS: It turns out, you probably know more about them than you realize. That when techniques, of course are just repackaged and using more processing horsepower in order to solve the problems. That has been an interesting problem that I’ve seen in industry. When we interviewed people, what are their fundamentals in? They may have had a course or two in graduate level statistics, but it’s almost always applied statistics, not statistics theory.

RLB: On that idea, what I wonder about is all of the things that I mentioned originally involving optimality criteria and developing good procedures judged against some optimality criteria and things like that, I don’t know and I don’t understand how these very modern procedures, things like machine learning and so on, fit into that paradigm. My impression is, and I could be completely wrong, that people develop clever new computing procedures, and they seem to find that they work well in some situations, or whatever, and that’s what people use until the next big new idea comes along. But, I doubt that there’s any idea of optimality criteria. I just can’t imagine that they could be analyzed in that way. So, that might be saying that all this stuff that we learned about in the middle of the 20th century is becoming pretty irrelevant, I don’t know.

NPS: So, it turns out, actually, and being in the midst of, having been in a program where I was exposed to a lot of these ideas, I can tell you that the easy answer is that the first part of what you said is exactly correct. The techniques have only recently come about, a lot of these techniques. Decision trees have been around for a long time, and so have artificial neural networks. But, the theory behind why they work is very much behind. I am hoping to try to bring some connection between what you’re talking about, that came out of the twentieth century, Rao, Blackwell, Neyman, Scheffé. All of these excellent theorems that a lot of machine learning people don’t know about, so they don’t even know where to start, as far as coming up with a theoretical framework in that context.

NPS: Yeah, so far, it is that applied scientists and software developers have stumbled on things that work, and they don’t know how to explain why they work. Part of what I’m hoping to do with this blog, and with interviews like this, is to try to evangelize statistics. Make statistics, how dare I even say it, make statistics great again. I didn’t want to say that.

return to top

Online Versus Brick-and-Mortar

NPS: So, let’s see. What else do we have? We’re going to jump over now to education from the standpoint of instruction, not so much the material that was taught, or the direction that research is or should be going, but more say, to start with, your take on MOOCS, the online classes and course work and degree programs that seem to be at least to some extent, supplanting brick-and-mortar.

RLB: Well, I still have questions about how valuable they are, and about how much students learn in those classes. I taught one online class, I confess, and I did not think it was a great learning experience for the students.

NPS: I found reviews of that online. So yes, I think they concurred.

RLB: I think for some introductory classes, well I think that in all classes, whether it’s in person or online, or anything, much of the value of the class depends upon the input of the students. It’s not all about the instructor. It’s not all about is this guy a great instructor? So the students learn a lot. Or is he not a great instructor, so the students don’t learn so much. The amount that the students get out of the class depends a great deal on what they put into it. So, in the same way, for an online class, I’m sure that there are some students who are very dedicated and are very eager to learn, and they learn a whole lot from an online class. But, I think it’s very easy for students to slide by and not learn so much in an online class, and I just fear that that’s what most of them are doing, that yes, the few very motivated students, it might be a great opportunity, but for the majority of students, they will only learn the minimum amount required. I know, I have friends who teach online master’s degree programs in statistics, those are very popular, and some of them are very huge, like the one at Penn State and so on. It’s servicing hundreds and hundreds of students a year, I believe. I guess it will just remain to see what the marketplace thinks about those graduates. If those people go out and are hired to good jobs and the employers are happy with what they’ve learned and so on, well then that’s good. That means that the online program is working. I think the marketplace will tell us if those students are coming out and are not as well prepared as the ones that go to brick and mortar master’s programs and so on. So, we’ll see. This is just because of my personal style, I suppose, I get a lot from the interaction in the class, the interaction with the other students, and the interaction with the professor. So, as I was a student, a lot of what I got out of the class was because of my interaction with other students and with the professor and being able to ask questions in real time and things like that. I just find it hard to understand how online delivery can be as good as in person delivery.

NPS: Well certainly here, you’re preaching to the choir. Maybe it’s selection bias on my part, but I know that the companies that I’ve worked at, preferential treatment obviously is given to people who have the brick and mortar degrees, because it demonstrates that they have been able to go, spend this time of their life interacting with others, not just the professor, but other students. Isolating that doesn’t seem like a good idea. I actually read an interesting book that further asserts that hypothesis with dramatic conclusions [Weapons of Math Destruction], that’s actually in an article I wrote earlier, so I’ll tell you about that book later.  What would you say … so, conditioning on brick and mortar, what would you say is sort of the optimal enrollment size for classes that you taught? That is sort of pivoting on your own personal style, but across several different years of teaching?

RLB: Well, this is where my ideas are different than a lot of people. I do not think that there is anything inherently bad about large classes. Part of the reason why I think that is because the best class that I had as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas was my freshman chemistry class. It was taught by Dr. Clark E. Bricker, and it was taught in an auditorium with 500 to 600 students.

NPS: Wow.

RLB: He did a spectacular job, and I learned so much chemistry in those two semesters from Dr. Bricker. Now, part of my positive response to that class was because of him and his style. He knew how to teach a class that big. It ran like a well-oiled machine. He had the uncanny ability to learn the names of all 600 students. Within a few weeks of that class starting when I was a freshman, I happened to walk past him on the sidewalk walking across campus, and he said, “Good morning, Mr. Berger,” and I was speechless.

NPS: It wasn’t the beard.

RLB: It wasn’t the beard. Everybody had a beard.

NPS: Oh okay.

RLB: I taught at North Carolina State. I taught graduate level introductory statistical methods classes to classes of 120 students. These were introductory stats classes for majors in the biological sciences. So, those were ag students and biology students and things like that. I would give lectures to 120 or more students in a semester, and give them all exams in class, and they did homework every week, which I had help grading, obviously from graduate students, but all the homework got graded, and I think I did a good job. My course reviews said I did a good job.

NPS: Definitely. That’s what I saw online.

RLB: I believe that large classes can be just as effective as small classes. Now, small classes are just fine. I mean, it’s great to have a class with 10 students where you get to know each one very well, and so on. But, I don’t think that that necessarily makes it a good class, because it has only 10 students. Some classes you need more than 10 students, because if you only have 10 students, you don’t get any reaction from them. Whereas if it’s bigger, there’s going to be more talkative people that will at least give you some reaction and help things move along.  The more advanced the class gets, the smaller they tend to get, and that may be necessary, because you need to be able to tailor things more individually as people have difficulty with this or that point. That’s a real sticking point, that you can take detours and spend time talking about something that you hadn’t planned to talk about and so on.  That can’t be done when you have a big class and, okay one person’s having trouble with this, but I can’t spend the time for 50 students talking about this one thing, and stuff like that. Anyway, I guess the only thing I have to say there, is that large classes can be very effective, and when I was an administrator, complaints about the fact that, or “The reason why I got lousy teaching reviews is because I had 25 students in my class, and you can’t teach a class for 25 students. I need a class of 15 students.”  My reaction to that was, “You can’t teach a class of 25 students, but there’s no evidence you can teach a class of 15 students either.”

NPS: Right, right. That’s only one data point. The variance is infinite. We have just a few more questions, we’re a little bit over time. It is all right to continue?

RLB: Sure.

return to top

Hardest Statistical Concept in Teaching

NPS: All right. What would you say, across your career, and this is across all classes, this would be the introductory level, then of course intermediate, and then all the way up to graduate. What is the hardest statistical concept to teach? What is it that people consistently have the most trouble with?

RLB: I think the hardest, the topic that I had the hardest time teaching was linear models. I taught master’s level linear models class at North Carolina State for several years. If students don’t see the data and see the problem in a geometric fashion, then linear models is just a bunch of pushing matrices around, and learning theorems about matrices, and it’s hard. I mean, it’s hard to absorb all that. If you can think geometrically, in terms of the data points, and the model space is a linear subspace of the set where the data live, and least squares, for example, is figuring out which linear subspace most closely fits those data points from a least squares sense, and so on. It all makes a whole lot more sense if you think in terms of projections, estimators being projections of the data on to subspaces and so on. It all kind of fits together, and then you have to learn the details about how you do all this with matrices and so on. You have to learn that anyway. But if all you have to work with is the matrix theory, I find it difficult to understand, and I guess I found it difficult to teach to people who were only thinking in those terms.

NPS: Yeah. I was thinking yesterday, when I was thinking about graduate level math work that I was exposed to, graduate level material, so I was trying to think about what I would be asking you about, and the thought kept coming to mind, and I’ve thought this for years, that a big part of learning any piece of math, is being able to relate it to some geometric concept, because that’s the way that our brains are wired to operate in this 3-D space. That might be higher dimensional, I don’t know. For some people, it’s 2-D.

RLB: If you can see it in three, then…

NPS: Then you’re winning.

RLB: Then that’s all you need. Then that probably works for higher dimensions, too. But, I think you need 3-D rather than 2-D for some things.

NPS: Absolutely.

RLB: To get the whole idea.

return to top

Graduate Student Major Spread in Statistics Courses

NPS: What would you say, so for statistics graduate students that you met or taught, what was sort of the balance between those that were studying pure statistics as a graduate degree, versus those that were from other disciplines that needed the credit?

RLB: Well, it just varied a lot with the class. Like I mentioned, those large introductory graduate classes for the biological sciences, those were virtually all students from other disciplines, and they were great fun. I loved teaching those classes. And, at that point, the students are in there because they know that they need to learn this material. When you’re teaching undergraduates a required introductory class, they may just be taking it to fulfill a requirement, a math degree requirement or something, and they don’t have any…

NPS: They don’t care anything about it.

RLB: They don’t really care, except to get through the class. But, in the graduate school, the students usually, at least were convinced that in order to write their thesis, they needed to understand this material. Whether they wanted to or not, they knew that this was something they really needed to understand in order to write their thesis, which they wanted to do to go off and be wildlife biologists or whatever they were going to be. So, those classes were completely students from other disciplines. When I was teaching master’s level statistical theory, like from the book, Statistical Inference, those classes were about 60% math [statistics] graduate students and 40% students from other classes. A lot of them were from business, and then some of them were from other disciplines. Some of them were students that I had had in that applied statistics class from biology, who …

NPS: Wanted to know more?

RLB: … maybe just liked the way I taught, or something. So, they would come and try to take the class.

NPS: That is exactly the next question I was going to ask is, sort of how many people, how often would it happen that you would sort of win somebody over to the side, not just of you and your teaching style, but win somebody over to statistics as a discipline? So they switch, because of a class they took?

RLB: Not very often.

NPS: Most of them are set in their ways? What they want?

RLB: Yeah. And if you’re in a master’s program, and you plan to be done in two years.

NPS: Yeah, I guess so.

RLB: It’s a little tough to change your mind completely.

NPS: Did that happen much on the undergrad level?

RLB: Yes. As an undergraduate, a lot of the time, math students would change over to statistics or would get a dual degree, or co-major in math and statistics and so on. Here at Arizona State, I was in a department that included both math and statistics, and I must say, the mathematicians were very supportive of statistics and told their students that statistics was also something important that they needed to know. So, they were not discouraged, math students were not discouraged from also exploring more statistics than what was required for the math degree. There, some of our best students were not students who started in statistics when they were freshmen, but were students that started in mathematics and then maybe got a co-degree or dual degree in both math and statistics. And part of that, of course is because they really made the decision when one or two years into their degree program to also add statistics, so that was a positive decision that they made that indicated already right there that they were really interested in this and were going to work hard at it.

NPS: Yeah. When I was in the master’s program for math, my Algebraist advisor didn’t want me to take the statistics classes, and it did suck me in. I took the first mathematical statistics class, which had the book, and then I had to take the sequel. And I ended up taking another graduate class with that professor, who was the chair at the time, of the department.

return to top

Motivating the Cauchy

NPS: I wanted to ask about variance. One quick question. In the course of teaching statistics throughout your career, the problem of distributions without variance. Was that a hard concept for people to understand? Like the Cauchy distribution or ratios of exponentials? Things that give you pathological … pathological sounds really, really negative, but just natural distributions that don’t have variance, and thus you can’t rely on CLT.

RLB: I always used that example, you introduce the Cauchy distribution, and okay, why is it interesting, well, it doesn’t have a variance. It doesn’t have a mean. So, that’s a curiosity.

NPS: And it’s a ratio of two standard normals.

RLB: Well, but that’s the kicker. If it was only the Cauchy distribution, here’s this mathematical oddball. It doesn’t have a variance, but then of course, when do you ever observe anything that doesn’t have a finite support? Everything has a variance. Not only do you need an infinite support, but you need an infinite support with tail behavior that is such that you don’t have a variance, and you can dismiss it all as a mathematical curiosity. But then, when you learn that you take the ratio of two standard normals, and you have a Cauchy distribution, all the sudden, that’s very important, because people are calculating ratios all the time.

NPS: As the kids say, “Shit gets real.”

RLB: And, so that’s the payoff. That’s the kicker as to why you have to worry about distributions with infinite variances, because you can calculate things that, according to the theory, would have an infinite variance. If it were just the Cauchy distribution, here’s the formula, try to calculate the mean, can’t do the integral, it doesn’t exist. That would be curious, but it wouldn’t be that interesting.

NPS: Right. Exactly. I have, it seems like, at every company I’ve worked at, and in every department that I’ve worked at, I have had to educate people about that, because the assumption is, you just go with the central limit theorem, everything’s a z-test or for God sakes, they even misapplied the t-test. They use it when they should use a z-test, even under the asymptotic assumptions.

return to top

Estimators Abound

NPS: So, I guess I want to do maybe, let’s see, techniques for building estimators. What would you say is your favorite? Method of moments? Maximum likelihood? EM? Bayes?

RLB: Well, not method of moments, because I think it’s pretty limited in applicability. I’ve never thought about it much, but I don’t know how you do regression with method of moments. So, I guess make regression coefficients and stuff like that, but I suppose you could do something, but that’s … method of moments is great for estimating a population mean, that’s real simple to motivate for that, but beyond that, it gets a little sticky.

NPS: I’ve used it for beta parameters. Because the maximum likelihood is hell to do that.

RLB: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, I think we do that in the book.

NPS: Oh, okay.

RLB: I think we thought of that first.

NPS: Yeah. I’m sure you did.

RLB: No, gamma, I think our example was gamma. So, not method of moments. Maximum likelihood, I think is a least squares, which aren’t the same thing, obviously. Method of Moments, I mean Maximum Likelihood has a disadvantage that it’s tied to a particular model, whereas least squares is kind of a concept like I was talking about earlier, a geometric concept of how do you approximate this cloud of points with a linear subspace, so Method of Moments, and of course, least squares, you can do with non-linear things too. So, that’s probably the most useful.  EM and Bayes, I think of EM as a way of calculating Maximum Likelihood estimates, and so on. So, I think that comes under there. Bayes, I think are important and with modern technology, you can do Bayes with simulation methods, MCMC and things like that. So, that’s far more useful than they were back in the day that I first learned about Bayes estimators, that’s for sure. We haven’t talked about Bayes and Frequentist. I’ve always been a…

NPS: Oh, that question is in here, and I missed it somehow.

RLB: I’ve always been a real agnostic about Frequentist and Bayes and so on. Whatever works, works. So, if you have a legitimate prior, and so on, you should use Bayes. There’s no doubt about it. But in situations where you don’t have that much information then you need something else, and the Frequentist might be the better option in those cases. So, I’m not a dogmatic Bayesian that you have to stuff every problem into a Bayes mold. If you don’t have the information to do that, then you shouldn’t have to sit around contemplating your navel coming up with a prior, even though the economists like to think about that. How do you elicit a prior from someone no matter what they know or don’t know? So, Bayes are fine. But you need a computer to do Bayes in a modern sense. You might be able to do least squares and maximum likelihood with a pencil and paper, if you’re worried about lack of electricity.

NPS: Right. Or your generator gives out. Well that leaves us, I guess, with just two more questions. This pivots sort of on what you were saying, and I mentioned this earlier, that I feel like, in my own experience, people I’ve met who are coming out of grad school and are specializing in machine learning, a lot of this statistical know-how has fallen by the wayside mainly for the reasons that you mentioned. That you can do these things with computers so readily and so easily. But, what I’ve discovered is that there’s no real understanding of what the technique is doing under the hood. Even with the simpler ones, where it’s fairly straight forward, like with a decision tree. Are you splitting on information gain, or least squares or some other optimality approach?

return to top

Evangelical Statistics

NPS: How do we evangelize statistics? How do we get more sharp math and machine learning as it were, kids interested in statistics and the work that’s come out of the last century?

RLB: Well, not at that level, at a lower level, we still have difficulty getting good students into undergraduate statistics programs. Students may see, a lot of students are seeing statistics in high school, in AP statistics and so on, but I don’t think that they are being, that those are being taught in a way that gives students the idea that this might be a path to a career. So, when they come to the university, they don’t think, “Oh, I’m going to major in statistics.” Somehow they think, “I’m going to major in math,” or whatever else it’s going to be. So, I think part of the evangelization would have to start at very low level, in high school, letting those students know, and there’s a lot of them every year. Hundreds of thousands that take AP statistics. Letting them know that there’s a future here, and that they can pursue this in depth as an undergraduate, and so on.  As far as … I think the evangelization has to be in terms of what we add, what value we add, to the solution of the problem. If people are happy with people who know how to run programs to do machine learning, and so on, well then, they’re going to be satisfied with that, and there won’t be any need for more statistics and so on. I think the evangelization we have to do is to continue to be relevant, and to continue to work on problems and come up with solutions that add value to the end users, to the businesses or researchers or whatever that are using the material. I don’t think just jumping up and down and saying, “Look, you need to think about optimality criteria,” will do the trick. That’s kind of like the way it used to be with Bayesians back in the ’60s and ’70s. The whole thing with Bayesians was, “Well, if you’re not a Bayesian, you’re not coherent.” And they would quote theorems by Savage and so on, about coherence, and things like that. It was all very nice math, and it didn’t convince very many people that they had to be Bayesians. But, when Bayesian methods became usable, with computing power, with MCMC and things like that, then all the sudden, people are a lot more interested in Bayesian methods. And, they’re still not interested in them because if you aren’t a Bayesian then you aren’t coherent. That’s not why the biologists are using Bayesian methods to develop genetic trees and stuff like that. It’s because they work and they give useful answers. So, just screaming about you need to know these theorems from the mid 20th century because that’s the right way to look at statistics, the right way to think about things, even though I may think that’s true, that’s not going to convince very many people that that’s what they need to be doing.

NPS: That’s not an argument, yeah. What I had been able to do, I don’t necessarily share all the methodology, but I show my coworkers estimators for certain quantities we care about, and they have no idea where the estimator comes from. That’s kind of a … and that it’s, under Lehmann–Scheffé, it is optimal so long as it’s unbiased and based on the sufficient statistics. But, they don’t know any of those concepts. And the fact that you can use Rao-Blackwell to get estimators that can reduce our sample complexity, sometimes by 40%, and we’re talking about page views on Bing ads, or on Bing, so that this could be really, really huge. So, that’s what I’ve tried to do to evangelize it. I think, I hope that’s sort of in keeping with the spirit of what you mentioned, to show some interesting results to get them curious about that.

RLB: Yes.

return to top

Onward and Upward in Retirement

NPS: Well, I guess that leads me to the last question, which is retirement plans. Now that you are retired, what is the future for Professor Roger Berger?

RLB: I’ll still be doing some statistics. Still got a few papers in my head that have been there for a few years that need to be written, and I plan to get to them. But, I am enjoying doing a lot of other things also. My wife and I enjoy traveling. In the last three months, we’ve been to Guatemala, we’ve been to the Netherlands, we’ve been to Canada. So, that’s just from May to August. We have more plans like that in the future. It’ll be a combination of true retirement, enjoying other things, as well as keeping my hand in statistics and so on. One of the best things about retirement is when people send me papers to referee. I tell them that I only referee papers now that really grab me, the abstract grabs me as being something incredibly interesting. I feel no obligation to referee a certain number of papers a year or anything like that. So, that’s very liberating. That’s a great part of retirement, is being able to say no without any guilt.

NPS: Wow. Well, very much appreciate you taking the time to do this. I know that there will be a lot of people interested in hearing all of the things that you have to say, and perhaps we can do this again sometime in the future.

RLB: Thank you Neil, for inviting me to do this. It’s been enjoyable. I hope we didn’t tax the listeners by the length of it. We went on a little longer than we had planned, but it’s been great fun.

NPS: Well, in the world of long commutes on the highway, an hour and a half isn’t actually that long. Thank you very much.


A Few Statistics Answers

Earlier this month, I posed some statistics interview questions. Here are possible answers.

1. Stirling’s formula holds that \lim_{n\to\infty}{{\Gamma(n)e^{n}}\over{n^{n-1/2}}}=\sqrt{2\pi} , a result with broad utility in numerical recipes (the gamma function and concentration inequalities) and complexity (the notion of log-linear growth.)  It can follow directly from the central limit theorem.  How?

Suppose X_{1},\dots,X_{n} are i.i.d. exponential(1).  Then \overline{X}_{n} is distributed \Gamma(n,1/n).  By the CLT, \sqrt{n}\left(\overline{X}_{n}-1\right)\to N(0,1).


Therefore by the CLT,




for all t\ge0.  Showing the result of the theorem requires recognizing that

{\left( {t / \sqrt{n}+1}\right)}^{n-1}e^{-\sqrt{n}t}=(t/\sqrt{n}+1)^{-1}\left({{(t/\sqrt{n}+1)^{\sqrt{n}}}\over{e^{t}}}\right)^{\sqrt{n}}\to e^{-t^{2}/2}.

We’ll omit the details.

2. Can you think of how regularization and prior distributions are connected?

Generally we can characterize the cost function as a log-likelihood.  For instance, the sum-of-squares error in OLS given by


can be interpreted as a negative log-likelihood of


We can coerce a Bayesian treatment by thinking of the regression coefficients as random phenomena, so that


This prior belief about the regression coefficients can take the form of any regularization we may choose to include in the original formulation.  For instance, suppose we really believe that the slope and intercept ought not be too big.  An L2 regularization would mean


for some suitable constant K, akin to the regularization hyperparameter.

3. Where might the CLT run aground?

Answer : Any number of obstacles to invoking the CLT exist, including non-finite variance, unstable variance, lack of independence, and so on.  Specific examples include a ratio of two independent standard normal variables, ratios of exponentials, waiting times to exceed say the first measurement, and so on.

4. Can you offer a variance-stabilizing statistic for predicting success probability in a binomial sample?  Provide a 100(1-\alpha)% confidence interval.

Answer : With the delta method, we can offer the test statistic


By the delta method, we have

\sqrt{n}\left(2\arcsin(\sqrt{\overline{X}})-2\arcsin(\sqrt{p})\right)\to N(0,1).


The confidence interval, with work, is






A candidate capable of deriving the aforementioned in an hour interview would achieve a near unconditional pass.

5. Where does maximum likelihood estimation run into trouble?  Name three problems.

Answer : (1) Peakedness of the likelihood function can cause numerical instability, (2) sometimes the optimal solution falls outside the parameter space, and (3) there may be no global optimum.

A followup question is to query examples of each case.  Simple ones are estimating the size of a binomial trial, estimating parameters in subtended distributions, and unidentifiable parameters, respectively.  Answers may vary.

6. Consider a ratio of two exponential random variables.  If your boss asked you to approximate its expectation, how would you answer it!

Answer : If you got number three above, you already know the answer : the expectation does not exist.  Understanding the nuance is helpful in overcoming the challenges posed by ratio metrics.

7. If X_{1},\dots,X_{N} are i.i.d. unif(0,\theta), how would you estimate \theta?  Give an estimator and justification.

Answer : This is an excellent opportunity to discuss sufficiency, a satisfying means of describing information necessary to determining a parameter.  It turns out that the maximum order statistic X_{(N)}, distributed \theta\times B(N,1), is sufficient for \theta.  Therefore, an unbiased estimator is



\text{Var }Y/\theta={{1}\over{N(N+2)}}.

We can invoke Lehmann-Scheffe to claim our estimator is UMVUE, if we can show completeness, another convenient statistical property we’ll discuss more in the days ahead.  Offering a confidence interval is an interesting follow-up.

Much of the above comes from insights in Statistical Inference by Casella and Berger.  I’ll be interviewing Roger Berger in a few months for Algo-Stats.  If you’ve made it this far in my article, please reach out to me to chat.  npslagle



One Hundred Statistics Inequalities

Six years ago, I sat in a randomized algorithms class taught by Dick Lipton, and he requested we students assemble a list of concentration inequalities.  Perfectionistically, I scoured textbooks, paper articles, and the internet for every last inequality I could unearth, building a respectable assortment of one hundred results of varying utility and import.  Dick had some design in mind on the assignment, though I never was able to determine his intentions, as he is famously scattered and hard to track down.

I posted them on my personal website years ago, and noticed lately that they’d found their way into lectures by computer scientist Junzhou Huang, a professor at one of my alma maters, the University of Texas at Arlington.  It occurred to me that they might interest a broader audience.

As time permits, I’ll try to expand them, and perhaps produce a workbook of proofs for many of them.

Take a look at them here, and  let me know what you think!

On the Responsibility of Technologists : A Prologue and Primer

A special thank you to S. Kelly Gupta for invaluable suggestions, and to George Polisner and Noam Chomsky for taking the time to read an earlier draft and offer encouraging feedback.

A Casting Call for the Conscientious Data Practitioner

For some time now, I’ve planned on writing an article about the very serious risks posed by my trade of choice, data science.  And with each passing day, new mishaps, events, and pratfalls delay publishing, as the story evolves even as I write this.  For instance,  Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, sporting a smart suit and a booster seat ostensibly to improve morale.  Though some interesting topics came up, the discussion was routine, with the requisite fear-mongering from Ted Cruz, the bumbling Orrin Hatch asking how money comes from free things (apparently he forgot to ask Trump about withholding pay from blue-collar contractors), and a few more serious people asking about Cambridge Analytica, such as Kamala Harris querying the lengthy delay in Facebook notifying users of Cambridge, and, surprisingly, John Kennedy panning Facebook’s user agreement as “CYA” nonsense.

The tired, public relations newspeak of the mythical well-meaning, self-regulating corporations accompanies happily the vague acknowledgements of responsibility around certain things we heard from Zuckerberg, along with references to proprietary and thus unknowable strategies almost in place.  And though I doubt Congress in its current state can impose any reasonable regulations, nor would those in charge be capable of formulating anything short of a lobbyist’s Christmas list, my intention here is to argue for something more substantial : a dialog must begin among technologists, particularly data practitioners, about the proper role of the constructs we wield, as those constructs are powerful and dangerous.  And it isn’t just because a Russian oligarch might want Donald Trump to be president, or because financial institutions happily risk economic collapse at the opportunity to make a few bucks; data has the power to confer near omnipotence to the state, generate rapid, vast capital for a narrow few at expense of the many, and provide a scientifically-sanctioned cudgel to pound the impoverished and the vulnerable.  Malignant actors persist and abound, but complacency among the vast cadre of well-intentioned technologists reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s discussion of the “white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”  So I must clarify that I’m writing not to the bad people who already understand quite well the stakes, but to my fellow conscientious practitioners, particularly those among us who fear consequences to career or suffer under the peculiar delusion that we have no power.  Consequences are real, but  we as technologists wield great power, and that power is more than additive when we work together.  The United States is unusually free, perhaps in the whole of human history, in that we can freely express almost any idea with little or no legal ramification.  Let’s use that freedom together.

A Lasting Legacy : Power and Responsibility

Fifty-one years ago last February, Noam Chomsky authored a prescient manifesto admonishing his fellow intellectuals to wield the might and freedom they enjoy to expose misdeeds and lies of the state.  Much of his discussion dwells on the flagrant dishonesty of particular actors as their public pronouncements evolved throughout the heinous crime that is the Vietnam War, and in more recent discussions, such as those appearing in Boston Review in 2011, describe the significant divide between intellectuals stumping for statism versus the occasional Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg, and Bertrand Russell:

The question resonates through
the ages, in one or another
form, and today offers a
framework for determining the
“responsibility of intellectuals.”
The phrase is ambiguous: does it
refer to intellectuals’ moral
responsibility as decent human
beings in a position to use their
privilege and status to advance
the causes of freedom, justice,
mercy, peace, and other such
sentimental concerns? Or does it
refer to the role they are expected
to play, serving, not derogating,
leadership and established institutions?

We technologists, a flavor of intellectuals, have ascended within existing institutions rapidly, for fairly obvious reasons.  More specifically, those of us in data science are enjoying a bonanza of opportunities, as institutions readily hire us in record numbers to sort out their data needs, uniformly across the public, private, good, bad, large, small dimensions.  We’re inheriting remarkable power and authority, and we ought approach it with respect and conscience.  Data, though profoundly beneficial and dangerous, is still just a tool whose moral value is something we as its priesthood, if you will, can and ought determine.  Chomsky’s example succinctly captures how we should view it :

Technology is basically neutral.
It's kind of like a hammer.
The hammer doesn't care whether
you use it to build a house or
crush somebody's skull.

We can ascribe more nuance, with mixed results.

Data is Good? Evidence Abounds

I suspect I’m preaching to the choir if I remark on the impressive array of accomplishments made possible by data and corresponding analyses.  I believe the successes are immense and plentiful, and little investigative rigor is necessary here in the world of high tech to note how our lives are bettered by information technology.  Woven throughout the many successes, more subtly to the untrained eye than I or similar purists would prefer, is statistics, and the ensuing sexy taxonomy of machine learning, big data, analytics, and myriad other newfangled neologisms.  The study of random phenomena has made much of this possible, and I’d invite eager readers to take a look at C.R. Rao’s survey of such studies in Statistics and Truth.

I’m in this trade because I love it, I love science, I love technology, I love what it can do for you and me, and I’m in a fantastic toyland which I never want to leave.  So I must be very clear that I am no Luddite, nor would I advocate, except in narrow cases (see below), technological regression; the universal utility of much of what has emerged from human ingenuity has served to lengthen my life, afford me time to do the work I want, and make me comfortable.  Though the utility is so far very unevenly shared, I do believe we’ve made tremendous progress, and the potential is limitless.  So I’d entreat the reader potentially resistant to these ideas to brandish Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” then judge for oneself.  My primary objective here is to begin a dialog.  Now for some of the hard stuff.

Data is Bad? There is Evil, and There Are Malignant Actors

Evils of technology also are innumerable, as the very large, growing contingency of victims of drone attacks, guns, bombs, nuclear attacks and accidents, war in general, and so on, will attest.  Surveying the risks of technology leaves the current scope long behind, but it’s worth paying attention to the malignant consequences of runaway technology.  I’ll be reviewing Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine on my other blog soon; suffice it to say the book is good, the story is awful.  The book is a sobering, meticulous analysis of the most dangerous technology ever created, and how reckless and stupid planners were in safeguarding said technology.   Here, we’ll stick just to problems arising from bad data science, and the bad actors, be it ideologues, the avaricious, the careless, or the malevolent.

We ought consider momentarily the current state of affairs : Taylor Armerding of CSO compiled the greatest breaches of the current century, attempting to quantify the damage done in each case.  Since the publication of his summary, the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal has emerged, sketching a broad “psychographic” campaign to manipulate users into surrendering priceless data and fomenting discord.  Quite dramatically, a 2016 memo leaked from within Facebook shows executive Andrew Bosworth quipping,

In other words, “don’t bother washing the blood off your money as you give it to us.”  Slate offers an interesting indictment on the business model that has rendered the exigencies of data theft, content pollution, and societal discord concrete, imminent contingencies.  And most recently, Forbes reports that an LGBT dating app called Grindr apparently permits backdoor acquisition of highly sensitive user data, endangering users and betraying their physical location.  And the first reported fatality due to driverless technology deployed by Uber occurred in Arizona this month, generating a frenzy of concerns around the safety and appropriateness of committing these vehicles into the public transportation grid.  The reaction I noted on the one social media platform I use, LinkedIn, was tepid, ranging from despairing emoticons to flagrant, arrogant pronouncements that this is the cost of the technology.  I also observed a peculiar response to those unhappy about the lack of security around user data : blame the victims.  The responses vary from the above declaration of cost of convenience to disdain for the lowly users in need of rescue from boredom, discussed by one employee of Gartner, a research firm :

let's be honest about
one thing: we all agree that
we give up a significant part
of our privacy when we decide
to create an account on Facebook[;]
[w]e exchange a part of our private
life for a free application that
prevents us from being bored most
time of the day.

I’d refer this person to Bosworth’s memorandum, though he, like CNN in 2010, likely hadn’t seen it before venturing such drivel.  I interpreted their argument as a public relations vanguard aimed at corporate indemnification.  Certainly, an alarming number of terms and conditions agreements aim to curtail class action lawsuits and, where legal, eliminate all redress through the court system.  On its face, this sounds ludicrous, as the court system is precisely the public apparatus for resolving civil disputes.  Arbitration somehow is a thing, with Heritage and concentrations of private power reliably defending it as freer than the public infrastructure over which citizens exercise some control, however meager.   Sheer genius is necessary to read

[n]o one is forced into arbitration[;]
[t]o begin with, arbitration is not
“forced” on consumers[...] [a]n obvious
point is that “no one forces an
individual to sign a contract[,]”

and interpret it any other way than that the freedom to live without technology is a desirable, or even plausible arrangement; Captain Fantasticanyone?

Maybe it’s a question of volume, as catechismic, shrill chanting that we have no privacy eventually compels educated people write the utter nonsense above.  If one were to advance the argument further, it’s akin to blaming the victims of the engineering flaws in Ford’s Pinto; after all, the car rescues the lower strata of society from having to walk or taxi everywhere they want to go, and death by known engineering flaws is the cost of doing business.  The arrogance evokes Project SCUM, the internal designation for a marketing campaign tobacco giant Camel aimed at gays and the homeless in San Francisco in the 1990s.

Governments cause even greater harm, exhibited in Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the NSA’s pet project to spy on you and me, code-named PRISM.  Comparably disconcerting, Science Alert reported this week that the development of drone technology leaving target acquisition in the control of artificial intelligence is almost complete, meaning drones can murder people using inscrutable and ultimately unaccountable data models.  State-of-the-art robotic vision mistakes dogs for blueberry muffins in anywhere from one to ten percent of static images analyzed, depending on the neural network model, meaning a drone aiming at a muffin would destroy one to ten percent of the dogs mistaken, and this is training on static imagery!  Imagine the difficulties in a dynamic field-of-view with exceedingly narrow time windows necessary to overcome errors.  Human-controlled drones already represent enormous controversy, operating largely in secret without legislative or judicial review under the direction of the executive branch of the American government.  Who must answer for a runaway fleet of drones?  What if they’re hijacked?

More locally, Guardian recently unmasked the racist facial recognition models deployed by law enforcement agencies, bemoaning the existence of “unregulated algorithms.”  I’d wager the capability to reverse-engineer a machine learning model to steal private data receives great attention among adversarial actors and private corporations.  I can remember in my first job many years ago being in a discussion over an accidental leak of a few lines of FORTRAN to a subcontractor, to which I naively queried, “Why are we in business with someone we think would steal from us?”  A manager calmly replied that anyone and everyone would steal, and in any way they can.  Maybe it’s true, but I’d like to believe there’s more to countervailing passive resistance than meets the eye.  In any case, data science and artificial technology are tools co-opted for sinister and dangerous purposes, and we ought try to remember that.

Data is Ugly? Errors and Injustice, Manned and Unmanned

Data needs no bad actor or vicious intent to be misleading.  Rao refers to numerous unintentional examples of data misuse within the scientific record, peppered throughout the works of luminaries such as Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, Galilei Galileo, John Dalton, and Robert Millikan, as documented by geneticist  J.B.S. Haldane and Broad and Wade’s Betrayers of the Truth.  For instance, the precision Newton provided for the gravitational constant is well beyond his capacity to measure, and Mendel’s genetic models could explain the recorded data only with astronomical probability, suggesting either transcription errors or blatant cherrypicking.  Rao notes

[w]hen a scientist was
convinced of his theory,
there was a temptation to
look for "facts" or distort
facts to fit the theory[; t]he
concept of agreement with theory
within acceptable margins of
error did not exist until the
statistical methodology of 
testing of hypotheses was

That is, statistical illiteracy can only compound the problem of “fixing intelligence and facts around the policy,” to paraphrase the infamous Downing Street Memo.

Statistical literacy doesn’t guarantee good outcomes, even with honest representation.  Data can reinforce wretched social outcomes by identifying the results of similar failed policies of the past.  For instance, everyone knows African Americans are more likely to be harassed by police.  Thus, they’re more likely to be arrested, indicted, charged, and convicted of crimes.  Machine learning algorithms identify outcomes and race as significantly interdependent, and new policy dictates that police should carefully monitor these same people.   Asking why we ought trust an inscrutable model is unmentionable, reminding me that earlier propagandists invoked the “will of God” as justification for slavery, and later, the “free market” requires that some people be so poor that they starve.  Maybe elites always require some ethereal reason for the suffering we permit to pass in silence.  Anecdotally on racism, a myopic cohort once pronounced triumphantly to me that racists aren’t basing their prejudice on skin color, but on other features correlated with skin color.  The Ouroboros, or some idiotic variant, comes to mind.


Weapons of Math Destruction : Destructive Models

Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) ponders such undesirable social outcomes of big data crippling the poor and the disadvantaged.  Within the trade, dumb money describes the proceeds mined and fleeced from vulnerable populations.  The money poor people have ranges from real estate to be reverse-mortgaged, poverty and veteran status to leverage for education grants and loans, desperation of the poor in the form of title loans, payday loans, and other highly destructive financial arrangements.  Myriad examples of startups and firms abound, from for-profit online education firms like Vatterott and Corinthian Colleges targeting veterans and the poor to cash in on student loans, and their enabling advertising firms such as Neutron Interactive post fake job ads to cull poor people’s phone numbers to blast them with exaggerated ads.  Thinktank Learning, and similar firms model student success, helping universities and colleges game the U.S. News and World Report ranking system, a perfect example of a WMD.  Comstat and Hunchlab help resource-starved police departments profile citizens based on geography, mixing nuisance crimes with the more violent variant and strengthening racial stereotypes.  Courts rely now on opaque models to assess risk of convicts, determining sentences accordingly, according to a piece in Wired last year.  Ought we understand the reasons why two criminals convicted of the same crime receive different sentences?  The book is very much worth a read.  Her own journey is revealing, having been an analyst at D.E. Shaw around the time of the market crash.

Data has accumulated over the years that ETS’s prized Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a test required for candidacy in most American graduate programs,

  • has disproportionately favored the white, the rich, and the male, (sounds like a WASP daytime drama),
  • may not be all that useful for prediction, and
  • operates in darkness, inscrutably like many such “psycho-social” metrics.

My own personal experience with the examination is kind of interesting and comical : I’m apparently incapable of writing.  Being a south paw, my penmanship is atrocious, but I seem to remember having typed the essay… Kidding aside, acquiring feedback from them was impossible, and they led me to believe that the essay receives grades via an electronic proofreader.  I guess no one remained who could interpret the algorithm’s outputs.

A more serious question O’Neil raises is that machine learning models suffer many of the same biases and preferences born by their architects; I think of ETS reinforcing malignant stereotypes, a kind of “graduate ethnic cleansing.”  Algorithms running for Title Max target the poor, making them poorer still.  More seriously, what are these models trying to optimize, and is it desirable behavior?

The Problem of Proxies

O’Neil offers that part of the problem with building opaque data models to inform real world decisions is that the real world objective we’d like to improve is poorly proxied: unsuitable substitutes seem to be hogging the constraints.  For instance, how can an algorithm quantify whether a person is happy?  Happiness is something we all seem to understand (or think we do), and we can generally spot it or its shaded counterpart with little effort.  Millions of years have chiseled, then kneaded the gentle ridges of the prefrontal cortex to lasting import.  Algorithms might read any number of interesting features, and unlike consciousness itself, I suspect happiness, or at least its biological underpinnings, is something an algorithm could predict, but any definition suffers limitations.  My earliest intuitions in mathematics led me to believe that any state can be reproduced with sufficient insight into the operating principles.  Though the academy has largely reinforced what I used to call the “dice theory” (and I was all-too-proud to have dreamed it up myself), Galileo lamented centuries ago, as have others more recently, including Hume, Bertrand, and Chomsky, that the mechanical philosophy simply isn’t tenable.  More narrowly, we may be incapable as we are now to effectively proxy very important soft science social metrics.  I believe misunderstanding this may be fueling the insatiable appetite of start-up funding for applications lengthening prison sentences, undercutting college applicants, burdening teachers with arbitrary, easily falsified standards, bankrupting the poor, and harassing and profiling the most vulnerable.  Is society better off with young black men fearing to walk the street at night with the justified concern of being murdered?

A striking example of poor proxying is invoking the stock market as the barometer of the economy.  And this is something I see in social media time and time again.  Missing from the euphoria is that for nearly fifty years, the Gini index is positively correlated with the S&P 500, the former measuring economic inequality and the latter indexing the “health” of the stock market.  That is, as the stock market becomes healthier, the distribution of the money supply drifts away from the uniform.  Not coincidentally, this behavior seems to begin right around Nixon shock, or the deregulation of finance and the dismantling of Bretton-Woods.  In his 2004 book The Conservative Nanny State, economist Dean Baker discusses “perverse incentives” in maximizing incorrect proxies in patent trolling, wasteful copycat drug development, and the like.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees copyright protection to promote development of science, contravened by wasting sixty percent of research and development money on marketing and replicated research.

Even in a more seemingly innocuous setting, say social media, do we see deep problems in proxies.  Shares and likes become the currency of interaction, and social desirability need not interfere for most.  I’ve noticed in my own experiences in writing comments online that a frenetic vigilance overcomes me if I feel I’ve been misunderstood or have given the wrong sort of offense, as I’m (perhaps pathologically) hardwired to care about the feelings of others.  By interacting online rather than in-person, a host of nonverbal cues and information are absent, forcing us to rely on very weak proxies.  Psychology Today touched on this in 2014, and I suspect the growing body of evidence that flitting, vapid interactions online are damaging social intelligence demonstrates that the atomization of American culture is in no way served by social media.

Admittedly, the story seems dire, but belying the deafening silence is a groundswell of conscientious practitioners, fragmented and diffuse, but pervasive and circumspect.

The Courage to Speak

When I discuss any of the above with cohorts privately, a very large fraction agree on the dangers of misusing this technology; reflexive is incorrect habituated resignation, especially in America where illusory impotence reigns supreme. And so I see very little in the way of commentary on these issues from tradespersons themselves, though a handful from my network are reliable in discussing controversy.  Perhaps the psychology is simpler : is it fear of blowback and risks to career of the kind Eugene Gu is experiencing with Vanderbilt?  Certainly even popular athletes face blacklisting, Colin Kaepernick being an exemplar.  Speaking out is risky, but silence strengthens what Chomsky calls “institutional stupidity“, of which some of the above quotes embody.

The point I’m trying to drive home is that the responsibility of we the technologists demands an end to controversy aversion; we simply MUST begin talking about what we do.  Make no mistake, the ensuing void of silence emboldens demagoguery in malignant actors, such as the aforementioned projections on unmanned, computer-controlled drone warfare, further deterioration of the criminal justice system, exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, and wrecking the global economic system.  Further, refusing to speak out assures a platform for desperately irresponsible, dangerous responses of blaming or ridiculing the victims, a sort of grinding salt in the wounds.  Consider the extreme variant of the latter : Rick Santorum, Republican brain trust, has sagely admonished school shooting survivors to learn CPR rather than protest and organize to demand safety, and Laura Ingraham, shrill, imbecilic Fox host, has gleefully tweeted juvenile insults at one of the outspoken survivors.  Why would we relegate damage done by runaway data science as the cost of doing business, if we can clearly perceive the elitism and cynicism in the above?  Silence may seem safe, but is it really?  Ignoring sharpening income inequality, skyrocketing incarceration rates, and stratification and segregation has a cost : Trumps of the world become leaders, the downtrodden looking to demagogues.

The Coming Storm Following the Dream

With each public relations disaster and each discovery of flagrant disregard for users and their precious private data, we hurtle toward what I believe are an inevitable series of lawsuits and criminal investigations leading to public policy we ought to help direct.  C.R. Rao wrote some years ago regarding a lawsuit against the government failing to act to save fishermen from a predictable typhoon, plaintiffs’ chief issue being that the coast guard failed to repair a broken buoy :

[s]uch instances will be rare,
but none-the-less may discourage
statistical consultants from
venturing into new or more
challenging areas and restrict 
the expansion of statistics.
[emphasis mine]

The General Data Protections Regulation, or (GDPR), organized by the European Union, is perhaps one of the broadest frameworks ratified by any national or supranational body.  This coming May, the framework will supersede the Data Protective Directive of 1995.  The US government has regulated privacy and data with respect to education since 1974 with FERPA and medicine since 1996 with HIPAA.  Yet court precedent hasn’t yet determined the interpretation of these acts with respect to machine learning models built on sensitive data.  What will an American variant of GDPR look like?  Practitioners ought have a say, and the more included in the discussion, the better the outcome.  But this sort of direction requires coordination, and because of the unique and difficult work we do, we are fractured from one another and more susceptible to dogmatism around the misnamed American brand of libertarianism.  The American dream is available to technologists (and almost no one else), whence a rigidity of certain non-collectivist values, enumerated in a study conducted by Thomas Corley for Business Insider : the rub is that wealthy people believe very strongly in self-determination, and assume they are responsible for their good fortune.  I think of it as the “I like the game when I’m winning” phenomenon, and like most deep beliefs, some kernel of truth is there.  We could spend considerable time just debating these difficulties, and my being married to a psychiatrist offers uncomfortable insight.  In any case, discussions surrounding this are ubiquitous, and my opinions, though somewhat unconventional, are straightforward.  Historically, collective stands are easier to make and less risky than those alone.  In semi-skilled and clerical trades, we called these collections “unions.”  Professional societies such as the AMA, the ASA, the IEEE, and so on, are the periwinkle-to-white collar approximations, with the important similarity that collectively asserting will just simply works better.  And yet, we in data science have little in the way of such a framework.  It’s worth understanding why.

Cosmic Demand Sans Trade Union

The skyrocketing demand for new data science and machine learning technology, together with a labor dogmatism peculiar to the United States have left us, so it would seem, without a specific trade union that is independent of corporations and responsible for governing trade ethics and articulating public policy initiatives.  Older technology trades have something approximating a union in the professional societies such as IEEE and the American Statistical Association; like the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, these agencies offer codes of ethical practices and publications detailing the latest comings and goings in government regulation, technology, and the like.  Certainly, the discussion occurs here and there, though Steve Lohr’s 2013 piece in the New York Times summarizing a panel discussion at Columbia hinted a common refrain in our trade:

[t]he privacy and surveillance
perils of Big Data came up only
in passing[...] during a
question-and-answer portion of
one panel, Ben Fried,
Google’s chief information
officer, expressed a misgiving[:]
“[m]y concern is that the
technology is way ahead of society[.]

That is, we all know we have a problem, but little is happening in the way of addressing it.  A smattering of public symposia have emerged on certain moral considerations around artificial intelligence, though much of what is easily unearthed is some older articulations by Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and older still those by Isaac Asimov.  These often take the form of dystopian prognostications of robot intelligence, though I agree with Chomsky that we’re perhaps light years away from understanding even the basic elements of human cognition, and that replicating anything resembling that is not on the horizon.  Admittedly, my starry-eyed interest in Kurzweil’s projected singularity is what pulled me into computer science, but Emerson warns us that intellectual inflexibility belongs to small minds.  Fear-mongering of the future brings me to a spirit we ought exorcise early and often.

Unemployment and Automation : A New(ish) Bogeyman

No discussion of the impact of our technology would be complete without paying a little attention to the fevered musings and catastrophization of mass unemployment due to automation.  We as a society of technologists ought have a simple answer to this, namely that the post-industrial revolution mindset of compulsory employment as monetized by imagined market forces is illogical, inefficient, and unnecessarily dangerous to who we are and what we do.  Even less charitably, slavish genuflection to the free market mania is an obstacle, rather than a catalyst, to progress, as the complexities of civilization necessitate a more nuanced economic framework.  Though we’d need another article or so for better justification for the foregoing, I’ll skip to the conclusion to say that we must restore and strengthen public investment in technology democratically and transparently, casting off militarization and secrecy.  A good starting place is the realization that virtually all high tech began in the public sector, and that’s a model that serves both society and technologists.  It also organically nurtures trade consortia of the variety described above.  In any case, the principal existential threats we face have nothing to do with mass employment, though thwarting those threats, nuclear proliferation and catastrophic climate change, might require it.

Triage and Final Thoughts

Answering these current events demands responsible, courageous public discourse, appropriately supporting victims and formulating strategies to avert the totally preventable disasters above.  We should organize a professional society free of corporate, and initially governmental, interference, comprised of statisticians, analysts, machine learning scientists, data scientists, artificial intelligence scientists, and so on, so that we can internally by conference

  • collectively educate ourselves about the ramifications of our work, such as reading work by trade specialists such as O’Neil,
  • jointly draft position papers on requests for technical opinions by government and supranational organizations, such as a recent request from NIH,
  • dialog openly about corporate malfeasance,
  • draft articles scientifically explaining how best to regulate our work to safeguard  and empower the public (eloquently stated in Satya’s mission statement),
  • exchange ideas and broaden our trade perspective,
  • collectively sketch safe, sensible guidelines around implementations of pie-in-the-sky technology (such as self-driving cars), and
  • strategize how to redress public harm when it happens.

A few technologists, such as George Polisner, have very publicly taken stands against executive docility with respect to the Trump administration; his building of the social media platform is a great step in evangelizing elite activism, and, of course, privacy guarantees no data company will offer.  Admittedly, we all need not necessarily surrender positions in industry in order to address controversy, but we can and must talk to each other.  Talk to human beings affected by our work.  Talk to our neighbors.  Talk to our opponents.  The ugly legal and political fallout awaiting us is really just a hapless vanguard of the much more dangerous elite cynicism and complacency.  How do we ready ourselves for tomorrow’s challenges?  It begins with a dialog, today.


A Few Fun Statistics Interview Questions

Much of what we do in statistics requires a deeper understanding than running a package in R or python, though those skills can’t hurt.  Testing for statistical literacy can be a bit tricky, as scientists often fall into one of two camps : statistics is solved and thus not sufficiently important to cultivate in skills, or it’s completely opaque and perhaps uninteresting.

Conditioning on my own preferential treatment of statistics, I’d wager very few data scientists could answer the following questions.  We’ll defer providing sources to avoid giving up the answers.  If you’re interested in playing along, resist the temptation to search for answers online.  Think about how you would approach each of these without anything other than pencil and paper (if those archaisms still existed.)

  1. Stirling’s formula holds that \lim_{n\to\infty}{{\Gamma(n)e^{n}}\over{n^{n-1/2}}}=\sqrt{2\pi} , a result with broad utility in numerical recipes (the gamma function and concentration inequalities) and complexity (the notion of log-linear growth.)  It can follow directly from the central limit theorem.  How?
  2. Can you think of how regularization and prior distributions are connected?
  3. Where might the CLT run aground?
  4. Can you offer a variance-stabilizing statistic for predicting success probability in a binomial sample?  Provide a 100(1-\alpha)% confidence interval.
  5. Where does maximum likelihood estimation run into trouble?  Name three problems.
  6. Consider a ratio of two exponential random variables.  If your boss asked you to approximate its expectation, how would you answer it!
  7. If X_{1},\dots,X_{N} are unif(0,\theta), how would you estimate \theta?  Give an estimator and justification.

Happy Tuesday! Answers and more to follow soon.


Welcome to Algo-Stats

Recent events in industry have heralded an avalanche of interest in all things data.  Stakeholders, both public, private, and everything in-between are racing to cash in on the tsunami of freshly collected data, and companies, government agencies, and a litany of others are clamoring and scraping for more expertise in the nascent field of machine learning, and its proper forefather discipline, statistics.  Though predictions may vary, McKinsey Global predicting a demand of 2.9 million jobs requiring data analytic skills this year, Forbes reporting a 650% increase in data science positions appearing on LinkedIn in the last few years, the evidence is overwhelming that demand is skyrocketing and talent is scarce.  For those of us already in the field, it’s very good news indeed.

I’ve noticed in particular a peculiar proliferation of data programs, Udacity and Coursera-style mini-courses designed to generate more and more data scientists, and a surge of LinkedIn content geared toward conversational data science and mutual-congratulatory reverie.  Connections of mine suddenly are brandishing their shiny-new course certifications, ready and able to dive into a sea of messy, unwieldy data to mine for the sparse nugget of value.  Their stories are interesting.

As the data science fever has raged upward and onward, I’m increasingly cognizant of something truly unique, a convergence of public and private interest in what automation, data, and the science behind it can do.  Those of us in this space are uniquely situated to mentor and raise up the next generation of scientists in artificial intelligence.  And so I come to the rationale for this blog.  Advocacy and mentoring are important objectives for me, as those of you who’ve read my political blog know.  I’ve also recently weathered a health crisis locking me face-to-face with mortality, so I have a heightened sense of urgency around accomplishing my key objectives.  Further, the kind of data science I do is unique, even within the trade, as I enjoy dusting off and leveraging techniques from statistics lost in the excitement of machine learning, and all that goes with it.  My aim here is to tell a story, teach some concepts, and share with data scientists and enthusiasts alike discussions with authors, experts, social scientists, and many others.

Welcome to Algo-Stats!

NP Slagle