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.