Larry Wasserman (“Normal Deviate”) has announced he will stop blogging (for now at least). That means we’re losing one of the wisest blog-voices on issues relevant to statistical foundations (among many other areas in statistics). Whether this lures him back or reaffirms his decision to stay away, I thought I’d reblog my (2012) “deconstruction” of him (in relation to a paper linked below)[i]
Deconstructing Larry Wasserman [i] by D. Mayo
The temptation is strong, but I shall refrain from using the whole post to deconstruct Al Franken’s 2003 quip about media bias (from Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), with which Larry Wasserman begins his paper “Low Assumptions, High Dimensions” (2011) in his contribution to Rationality, Markets and Morals (RMM) Special Topic: Statistical Science and Philosophy of Science:
Wasserman: There is a joke about media bias from the comedian Al Franken:
‘To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is: do they use too much oil in their hummus?’
According to Wasserman, “a similar comment could be applied to the usual debates in the foundations of statistical inference.”
Although it’s not altogether clear what Wasserman means by his analogy with comedian (now senator) Franken, it’s clear enough what Franken meant if we follow up the quip with the next sentence in his text (which Wasserman omits): “The problem with al Qaeda is that they’re trying to kill us!” (p. 1). The rest of Franken’s opening chapter is not about al Qaeda but about bias in media. Conservatives, he says, decry what they claim is a liberal bias in mainstream media. Franken rejects their claim.
The mainstream media does not have a liberal bias. And for all their other biases . . . , the mainstream media . . . at least try to be fair. …There is, however, a right-wing media. . . . They are biased. And they have an agenda…The members of the right-wing media are not interested in conveying the truth… . They are an indispensable component of the right-wing machine that has taken over our country… . We have to be vigilant. And we have to be more than vigilant. We have to fight back… . Let’s call them what they are: liars. Lying, lying, liars. (Franken, pp. 3-4)
When I read this in 2004 (when Bush was in office), I couldn’t have agreed more. How things change*. Now, of course, any argument that swerves from the politically correct is by definition unsound, irrelevant, and/ or biased. [ii](December 2016 update: This just shows how things get topsy-turvy every 5-8 years. Now we have extremes on both sides.)
But what does this have to do with Bayesian-frequentist foundations? What is Wasserman, deep down, really trying to tell us by way of this analogy (if only subliminally)? Such are my ponderings—and thus this deconstruction. (I will invite your “U-Phils” at the end[a].) I will allude to passages from my contribution to RMM (2011) http://www.rmm-journal.de/htdocs/st01.html (in red).
A.What Is the Foundational Issue?
Wasserman: To me, the most pressing foundational question is: how do we reconcile the two most powerful needs in modern statistics: the need to make methods assumption free and the need to make methods work in high dimensions… . The Bayes-Frequentist debate is not irrelevant but it is not as central as it once was. (p. 201)
One may wonder why he calls this a foundational issue, as opposed to, say, a technical one. I will assume he means what he says and attempt to extract his meaning by looking through a foundational lens. Continue reading