As statistician Howard Wainer writes in his new book, “Truth or Truthiness,” telling people he is a statistician by trade used to be a great conversation stopper — the perfect way to repel a chatty passenger sitting next to you on an airplane flight.
Now, with the increased reliance on statistics in national news coverage and the rise of celebrity number crunchers like Nate Silver, a statistician can turn become the center of attention at the drop of a fact. “Truth of Truthiness” — Wainer’s 21st book — turns out to be as much stories as statistics, about why there are so many piano virtuosos, good and bad methods of detecting cheating on tests, the effectiveness of a charter school, and many more.
Wainer’s career path as a statistician followed some well known landmarks: B.S. in math from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1965, Ph.D. from Princeton in psychometrics in 1968, teaching stints at Temple University and the University of Chicago, a job with the Bureau of Social Science Research during the Carter Administration, and then a principal research scientist at Educational Testing Service for 21 years before taking his current position as research scientist at the National Board of Medical Examiners, as well as an adjunct professor of statistics at Penn’s Wharton School.
He has published more than 400 articles and chapters in scholarly journals and books. His Visual Revelations column in Chance magazine, co-published quarterly by the American Statistical Association, has been running for more than 25 years.
But how did this statistician turn into such a storyteller? Wainer has expounded on his career path in two in-depth interviews, one with Dan Robinson in 2005 in the Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, the other in 2015 with Sam Behseta, former executive editor of Chance.
Dan Robinson began his interview by asking what led Wainer to his interests in science and mathematics.
“My life was changed profoundly when I was 4 years old,” said Wainer, who was born Howard Goldhaber in Brooklyn in 1943. “At that time my father, Meyer Goldhaber, died of complications from a bleeding ulcer. He was 35. My father was an anatomist who, because of the depression, had trouble finding work, so he became a dentist and was successfully building a practice when he died. He left my mother with my six-month-old brother and me. My grandparents then bought a house suitable for holding us all, and we moved in with them. My mother went back to school to get a teacher’s credential to support the three of us. About two years later she married Sam Wainer, who adopted us; hence, I became ‘Wainer.’ My stepfather was a small businessman whose formal education was limited by the exigencies of the depression and his participation in World War II. But he had high regard for education and insisted that we do our best and go as far as we could.
“We also stayed in touch with my father’s family, many of whom were eminent physicists. Thus, both nature and nurture pushed me in the direction of science and mathematics.”
Wainer described his high school as “mostly miserable” until he gained admission to a new National Science Foundation program that enabled 50 or 60 high school seniors to participate in advanced training in science and math at Columbia University.
“It was the highlight of my adolescent life. To get to Columbia required two hours of bus and subway travel each way — no problem. At that age I could read math while standing on a moving subway. In the mornings I took classes in abstract algebra, Markov chains, and number theory, and spent my afternoons in Columbia’s Watson Laboratory on 116th street using the university’s IBM 650 computer.
“. . . My experience at Columbia motivated me to stay interested in mathematics despite the best efforts of my college instructors to wring it out of me. I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute because I could study mathematics there and because they had very limited humanities requirements. On the administration building there was a big sign that said “Increased earning power makes a good education a fine investment.”
“. . . Princeton was everything that RPI was not. The goal was scholarship and undirected curiosity was rewarded. Over the mantel in Proctor Hall at the Graduate College is the inscription “Bonus intra, mellior exi” — enter good, leave better — a long way from increased earning power. Graduate students were treated as junior colleagues — we were not on trial to see if we could make it, but rather it was assumed that we would succeed, but it was up to us to find a direction that would allow us to make a contribution.”
The story telling aspect of Wainer’s career comes to light in the Chance interview with Sam Behseta, who observed that “one thing I tell my students is that statisticians should be able to write well because that’s what they do. They analyze data and then they write about it. And it often comes as a surprise to them because their thought process is, ‘I’m in a quantitative field; I’m not in literature or anything like that.’ What’s your thought on that?”
Wainer replied that “it’s come as a surprise to me, too. When I applied to college, I eliminated all colleges that required an essay. So I ended up going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I hated writing because I wanted to do math. So the joy that I take in writing now astonishes me. But of course, I think one’s success as an academic is related to many variables. Horsepower, of course, focus, grit, energy, good taste in problems, and the need to tell stories. You have to tell stories.
“You have to construct some kind of narrative around what it is that you’re doing. No one’s going to pay attention to your stories unless you’re interesting and grammatical. And of course, the more you write, the more practice you get, the better you are at this. When I was at Chicago, one of the advantages of being a faculty member was that you could sit in on any course you wanted. So when I learned there was a course on writing that Saul Bellow gave, I jumped at the opportunity to audit it.
“One of the things I’ve observed about mathematicians is that most of us are open to criticisms of our mathematics, but not of our writing. The response is usually ‘Who are you to criticize my writing?’ But taking this course with Bellow, the ‘Who are you?’ is easy to answer. He has a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer, National Book Awards, etc. So I would write things, and he would give them back to me with comments. I would pay attention.
“He always referred to writing as his craft, never as his art. He explained that the reason he has had the success he had was that he worked hard at it. Of course, he also has some game. So I work hard at it. I write and rewrite. It’s fortunate that I enjoy reading my own work so much that I can reread the same thing several times and constantly pick away at it and to try and find le mot juste. So I emphasize the importance of clear writing to all of those with whom I work.”
In graduate school in Princeton Wainer met John Tukey, the founding chairman of the Princeton statistics department who contributed to the creation of today’s telecommunications technologies and is credited with coining terms such as “bit” (short for binary digit) and “software.”
As Wainer told Dan Robinson:
“Tukey represented a point of view quite different from any I had learned before. It seemed too free-and-easy to be legit, but Tukey’s reputation forced one to consider the stuff seriously. . . The connections with Tukey that were established then grew and lasted for more than 30 years. Tukey taught me more than statistics; he was the only genius I ever knew well.
“He caught on to new things lightning fast and was able to see deeply into them. Although I could certainly not duplicate his feats, just watching how a first-class mind works helped to shape my own approach to problem solving. I learned from his ‘axiom number one’ that ‘people are different’ and so listening seriously to others’ thoughts is an invaluable aid in seeing problems more broadly.”
After graduate school Wainer had a brief career as a college teacher. As he told Dan Robinson:
“I was pretty clueless about academic careers. I was offered a position at Temple University in Philadelphia, and, because it was close to my friends in Princeton and my family in New York, I accepted. It didn’t take very long for even someone as dense as I was to figure out that Temple wasn’t Princeton.”
After Temple, Wainer returned to Princeton, specifically to Educational Testing Service. There Wainer was able to meet more with John Tukey, who came to ETS “regularly to consult with whomever had a problem. Although the queue to see him was very long, there was always time for us to speak about the future of graphics. John’s ideas on this formed the basis of the last third of my book Graphic Discoveries. Charlie Lewis and I joined with John to form a modest version of Tukey’s famed ‘Marching and Chowder Society.’ I remain grateful to Charlie for arranging the meals that we shared with Tukey and for helping me to understand his sometime Delphic pronouncements. We did this up until Tukey’s very last day [in 2000], when the three of us shared a mince pie in his hospital room and discussed the role of multiple comparisons in data mining.”
Robinson noted that Wainer’s career path could have ended with ETS but it did not. Why did Wainer leave ETS for National Bureau of Medical Examiners?
“ETS became a less happy place in 1993 when . . . the administration’s focus on computerizing tests had profound, negative, consequences for the resources available to do research. Happily, the deterioration that characterized the ETS environment for the latter part of the 1990s ended abruptly in 2000, when after an effort to unionize ETS research staff only narrowly failed, ETS’s trustees appointed Kurt Landgraf to replace Nancy Cole as president, and Paul Holland retired from Berkeley and returned to ETS.
“I was delighted with the turnaround, and probably would have finished my career at ETS had I not run into Brian Clauser of the National Board of Medical Examiners at a Psychometric Society meeting in Valley Forge. Brian and his colleague Dave Swanson took me to lunch and spoke glowingly of the work going on at NBME and the role that I might play in it.
“Eventually the Board made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and so I joined up in 2001 — a move that has delighted me in every way. In addition, I found that I could keep my hand in academics by teaching a little in Penn’s statistics department, where I have continued the collaboration with Eric Bradlow that we began at ETS so long ago and renewed my friendship with Paul Rosenbaum.
“I erred badly in one aspect of my career. I had always thought that when you pass your 60th birthday the pace of life would ease; that frantic deadlines would no longer loom so frequently. Alas, I could not have been more wrong.”
As Wainer said in the 2015 interview with Sam Behseta:
“It is crucial to remember that as soon as you stop learning new things, your career is over. The easiest way to keep learning new things is to collaborate, especially with younger people. I’ve been enormously fortunate in working with some terrific young people. . . Working with younger scholars has stretched me in important ways and forced me to learn new things. Of course, my work has been improved because of it.”