Spanos

R. A. Fisher: how an outsider revolutionized statistics

A SPANOSToday is R.A. Fisher’s birthday and I’m reblogging the post by Aris Spanos which, as it happens, received the highest number of views of 2013.

by Aris Spanos

Few statisticians will dispute that R. A. Fisher (February 17, 1890 – July 29, 1962) is the father of modern statistics; see Savage (1976), Rao (1992). Inspired by William Gosset’s (1908) paper on the Student’s t finite sampling distribution, he recast statistics into the modern model-based induction in a series of papers in the early 1920s. He put forward a theory of optimal estimation based on the method of maximum likelihood that has changed only marginally over the last century. His significance testing, spearheaded by the p-value, provided the basis for the Neyman-Pearson theory of optimal testing in the early 1930s. According to Hald (1998)

“Fisher was a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science, without detailed study of his predecessors. When young he was ignorant not only of the Continental contributions but even of contemporary publications in English.” (p. 738)

What is not so well known is that Fisher was the ultimate outsider when he brought about this change of paradigms in statistical science. As an undergraduate, he studied mathematics at Cambridge, and then did graduate work in statistical mechanics and quantum theory. His meager knowledge of statistics came from his study of astronomy; see Box (1978). That, however did not stop him from publishing his first paper in statistics in 1912 (still an undergraduate) on “curve fitting”, questioning Karl Pearson’s method of moments and proposing a new method that was eventually to become the likelihood method in his 1921 paper. Continue reading

Categories: Fisher, phil/history of stat, Spanos, Statistics

More on deconstructing Larry Wasserman (Aris Spanos)

This follows up on yesterday’s deconstruction:


 Aris Spanos (2012)[i] – Comments on: L. Wasserman “Low Assumptions, High Dimensions (2011)*

I’m happy to play devil’s advocate in commenting on Larry’s very interesting and provocative (in a good way) paper on ‘how recent developments in statistical modeling and inference have [a] changed the intended scope of data analysis, and [b] raised new foundational issues that rendered the ‘older’ foundational problems more or less irrelevant’.

The new intended scope, ‘low assumptions, high dimensions’, is delimited by three characteristics:

“1. The number of parameters is larger than the number of data points.

2. Data can be numbers, images, text, video, manifolds, geometric objects, etc.

3. The model is always wrong. We use models, and they lead to useful insights but the parameters in the model are not meaningful.” (p. 1)

In the discussion that follows I focus almost exclusively on the ‘low assumptions’ component of the new paradigm. The discussion by David F. Hendry (2011), “Empirical Economic Model Discovery and Theory Evaluation,” RMM, 2: 115-145,  is particularly relevant to some of the issues raised by the ‘high dimensions’ component in a way that complements the discussion that follows.

My immediate reaction to the demarcation based on 1-3 is that the new intended scope, although interesting in itself, excludes the overwhelming majority of scientific fields where restriction 3 seems unduly limiting. In my own field of economics the substantive information comes primarily in the form of substantively specified mechanisms (structural models), accompanied with theory-restricted and substantively meaningful parameters.

In addition, I consider the assertion “the model is always wrong” an unhelpful truism when ‘wrong’ is used in the sense that “the model is not an exact picture of the ‘reality’ it aims to capture”. Worse, if ‘wrong’ refers to ‘the data in question could not have been generated by the assumed model’, then any inference based on such a model will be dubious at best! Continue reading

Categories: Philosophy of Statistics, Spanos, Statistics, U-Phil, Wasserman | Tags: , , , ,

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