image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions

Research (print version)

Stephen Stigler's new book challenges researchers to show him the numbers
The statistician argues that people, not numbers, lie. He values opinions and theories that are backed by vetted evidence.

Apple orchards and statistical theories may appear unrelated. But Stephen M. Stigler, the Ernest DeWitt Burton distinguished service professor in statistics and a member of the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science, has found a connection. The topics come up as he explains the purpose of a wooden, rectangular box, filled with beads and rows of tiny pins, that sits atop a filing cabinet in his Eckhart Hall office. Called a quincunx, the first such box was made in 1873 for the scientist Francis Galton, who designed it to provide a lesson in probability.

Stigler picks it up and demonstrates how the beads, by chance, consistently form a bell-shaped curve as they fall through the matrix and bounce off the pins. The arrangement of the pins-in groups of five, they form rectangles with one pin at each corner and one in the middle-is the literal definition of "quincunx." It also happens to be the same formation used in planting trees in an orchard.

"The practice, as well as the name," explains Stigler, "goes back to the ancient Romans. It maximizes the number of trees that can be planted in a given area, while maintaining a minimum distance among them."

Stigler overlaps other seemingly divergent worlds with that of statistics in his latest book, Statistics on the Table: The History of Statistical Concepts and Methods (Harvard). The book collects Stigler's essays-some previously published, others fresh or revised-on past debates and discoveries that have involved the use of statistics. While Stigler calls his earlier effort, The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty before 1900 (Harvard, 1993), a "treatise" on the development of the discipline, he concedes that in the new book-intended primarily for statisticians and quantitative social scientists-he goes "a little bit afield," discoursing on the temperance movement, fingerprint identification, probability, eponymy, and coin minting.

"I hope the book will spread awareness of the richness of the history of statistics," he says. "I started out in theoretical work and then my interest in the history of the subject grew as I saw how it gives me and my colleagues and students a better understanding of the modern subject. This field touches almost everything."

In the introduction to Statistics on the Table, Stigler explains that the book's title comes from a 1910 letter to the Times of London written by Karl Pearson, a prominent English statistician whose work has always intrigued the professor (one of the original calculators used in Pearson's laboratory is now displayed on Stigler's desk). In the letter, Pearson tells economists critical of his statistical evaluation of how alcohol use affects child-rearing that if they wish to dispute his findings, they must put their own "statistics on the table, please."

In the first essay, Stigler documents the debate that raged among Pearson and other scholars, including John Maynard Keynes, over the validity of Pearson's conclusions that parental alcoholism does not necessarily have disastrous consequences for children's health. The book's other 21 essays continue to underscore Stigler's larger point: Statistics should indeed be on the table-and have been-in not only scientific but also historical, literary, and religious arguments.

"Almost all public debates could benefit from statistical insights," says Stigler. "Anywhere measurements are taken and policies made, statistics come in. People point fingers at the misuse of statistics all the time, but you shouldn't say the numbers are no good. Rather, it's that the lies of the people using them are easier to point out when they're expressed numerically."

Stigler's cumulative research for the book, which ends with a 42-page bibliography, spans decades and took him all over the world. He scoured archives and searched rolls of microfilm records at London's University College and at American universities, including Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, his doctoral alma mater. He also traveled to Paris and Adelaide, Australia, and corresponded with rare-book dealers who had copies of relevant studies and other manuscripts. "There were a lot of surprises along the way," he says. "Many of these essays were the results of surprises."

For example, Stigler recalls how he came across the word "pyx" while catching up on some reading at the beginning of a winter break in 1975. He wondered why he had never before heard of such a perfect three-letter word for Scrabble. His curiosity was piqued even more when he looked the word up and discovered that it meant, according to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, either "a container for the reserved host" or "a box used in a mint for deposit of sample coins reserved for testing weight and fineness."

The words "sample" and "testing" led him into an "intense two-week period" in which he sought all the information he could find on the second meaning of pyx. "It fortunately was during a break, when I could pursue it!" he jokes. He eventually found himself in the vault of the Royal Mint in London, examining materials from an ancient ceremony called the Trial of the Pyx, in which sample coins placed in the pyx at the end of several production cycles are taken out, counted, weighed, and assayed. "Here I was being shown their most sacred treasures from a ceremony that has been going on for 800 years," he recalls, noting that the trial provides a rare example of a long-running quality-control program in which modern statistical concepts such as sampling have been used since the Middle Ages.

Stigler says he is now "trying to come to grips with the tremendous and exciting growth in statistics through the 20th century." He's interested in the relationship between statistical methods and the questions they are designed to answer in economics, genetics, and the social and physical sciences. His current projects include researching the work of geneticist and statistician Ronald A. Fisher, who advanced the design of statistical experiments during the first half of the 20th century. He's also looking at scientific literature to discern whether economists learn more from statisticians or vice versa.

Continuing his practice of finding a statistical angle to just about anything, Stigler is also addressing why golfer Greg Norman fell apart at the end of the 1996 Masters Tournament, after leading most of the way. "He was done in by a century-old statistical concept called regression," posits Stigler. The regression effect, he says, shows up when, for example, tall parents have a child who is closer to average height or when a student scores well on standardized tests but gets only average grades in school.

"It's a problem with measuring the degree to which people are really good or just lucky," he says. "There's a neat example of this effect in golf tournaments. There's a tendency for the measured performance of early leaders to change over the course of a four-day golf tournament." He plans to illustrate this point by gathering data on the scores of all participants in five years of four major tournaments, and then modeling the data to estimate the magnitude of the regression effect.

As for Norman's 1996 loss, Stigler suspects, "his luck just ran out." -C.S.

Hispanic lessons
The label "minority" is wholly inappropriate when applied to the Hispanic population in the United States, says Pastora San Juan Cafferty, a professor in the School of Social Service Administration and the Center for Latin American Studies. Hispanics now constitute 11 percent of the nation's population, she notes, and are projected to constitute one-quarter of the population by 2050. But, she argues, it's not just the numbers that make "minority" so misleading, "it is also the many ways that the diversity of the Hispanic population mirrors our whole country's diversity."

In Hispanics in the United States: An Agenda for the Twenty-first Century (Transaction), Cafferty and co-editor David W. Engstrom, AM'83, PhD'92, an associate professor of social work at New Mexico Highlands University, call for U.S. policy makers to consider Hispanics as a microcosm of American society and to recognize that the challenges facing Hispanics also face society as a whole.

The U.S. Hispanic population is often regarded as a homogenous one because of its shared Spanish language, notes Cafferty, who emigrated from Cuba when she was 8 years old. But in fact, she says, Hispanics are racially very diverse. If they migrated from the Caribbean, she explains, they may be of European descent, or of European and African, or just of African descent. Hispanics from North America and from Mexico may have a very strong Native American background as well as European.

Moreover, Cafferty says, the primary issues facing U.S. Hispanics-health care for infants and children, education, and labor-market participation-are matters important to the whole American population. "Because Hispanics are the youngest group in our society, and given our labor market and Social Security structure, Hispanics will be disproportionately supporting the rest of us in the next century," she said in an interview with the University's Chronicle. "So we're all better off if Hispanics fare well educationally and in the labor market."

Hispanics in the United States, due out in January 2000, expands on such themes. Cafferty and Engstrom have compiled essays by social workers, lawyers, economists, and others with insights into the demographics, characteristics, and concerns of U.S. Hispanics. As editor, Cafferty says, she tried to stay away from admonishing or exhorting public-policy makers. Rather, the essays are meant to raise questions about how policy makers have addressed the social problems of the Hispanic population. The writers, she says, also approached their subjects-which include Hispanic history, employment issues, and political involvement-with an eye toward creating a policy agenda for the next century, not just presenting data analysis.

In her own essay, Cafferty, who has a doctoral degree in American literary and cultural history from George Washington University, examines language retention within the Hispanic community and the many issues surrounding that loyalty, including bilingual education. She asserts that Spanish retention remains high among Hispanics because of the proximity of immigrants' homelands, the pervasiveness of Hispanic heritage, and the segregation patterns that have kept some Hispanics isolated in social and economic ghettos. Yet Hispanics speak English as much and as well as other ethnic groups, Cafferty says, and have been falsely placed in the center of the English-only debate within U.S. schools and government.

Cafferty's previous books and articles have similarly sought to broaden decision-makers' knowledge of immigrant populations. "The misconceptions that Hispanics somehow are a unique migration, do not learn English, are recent immigrants, are all Catholic-all these mythologies make for confused public policy," she says. "We must get away from stereotypes when setting a political agenda and define the social problems, not respond to the stereotypes."

For her next project, Cafferty plans to return to her literary roots and explore diversity within popular fiction.--Molly Tschida

Writing plays
Dubbed a "master in small-town realism" by the entertainment-industry magazine Variety, playwright Claudia Allen has been on campus this fall teaching her craft as a part-time humanities lecturer, advising students that "your life experience is what makes your stories unique because nobody else has your life."

Allen, a resident playwright at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, has been practicing what she preaches. Her sense of humor as well as themes taken from her own life repeatedly show up in her writing. Her new play, Xena Live!, is her latest contribution to Chicago's campy late-night theater offerings. A theatrical spoof on the action-packed TV show Xena, Warrior Princess, Allen's version is performed at Chicago's About Face Theater and features a man in drag as Xena. It highlights the lesbian subtexts in the TV show. Because some of her plays are "rather sedate and set in the living room," Allen finds it exciting to incorporate fight scenes into Xena Live!: warriors combat giant beetles in areas like Ravens' Wood, named for the beetle-infested Chicago community of Ravenswood, where Allen lives. Allen has also written and produced several other parodies, such as Gays of Our Lives and A Gay Christmas Carol.

Allen first discovered her love of playwriting during her college years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree in English. There, Allen distinguished herself from classmates who were writing dormitory dramas by writing about a middle-aged woman dealing with a deteriorating and aging mother. For Allen, the theme of aging became a distinctive mark that would resurface in many of her 18 plays. Winter, the latest of six of her plays to have been produced by Victory Gardens, ran for more than a month this past summer. Directed by Sandy Shinner, the play told the story of a young couple, played by Tony Award-winner Julie Harris and Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum, reunited in their old age.

"I've always liked writing about older people because they've lived," says the 44-year-old Allen, noting that she spent a lot of her childhood in small-town Michigan "sitting on porches talking with old ladies." At work on a screenplay based on the stage version of Winter, Allen is also readying for a May production at Victory Gardens of her newest play, Cahoots, a madcap comedy starring Sharon Gless, of TV's Cagney and Lacey. -E.C.

Growing younger
In 1994, Michael Roizen met a patient in his pre-operative clinic who was being treated for elevated blood pressure. The 47-year-old man informed Roizen, professor and chair of anesthesia and critical care at the U of C since 1985, that many doctors wouldn't treat his borderline case because it wasn't that serious.

But, Roizen explained, the patient's condition actually made his body function as if he were five years older than if he had a blood pressure in a more normal range. "You live with the arteries of someone who's 52," Roizen said, to the chagrin of the patient, Martin Rom. In fact, the observation hit Rom so hard that, with Roizen, he soon started a company devoted to determining "real age."

The partners' RealAge, Inc., has since spawned a well-trafficked Internet site, a best-selling book, a nationally syndicated column, and a second book deal. Their RealAge method yields a "net present value" of age that accounts not only for biological factors but also for 126 behavioral, environmental, and social influences.

"These factors influence how well and how long you live, and you control over 70 percent of them," says Roizen. "I wanted to let people know there are specific choices, the value of their choices, and that they can control their health."

Some 40 to 100 pages of health-related articles cross Roizen's desk every day, so he is well aware of the need for clarity. "If I'm confused by it, the public's got to be confused as well," he says. "And so what RealAge tries to do is set criteria." The RealAge criteria fall into three categories: things that increase your real age, things that decrease your real age, and things that have no effect on your real age. The RealAge methodology is based on data that give the "real" effect of certain behaviors on the body. Flossing, for example, has a huge effect-6.4 years younger-on real age, says Roizen, noting that flossing is 300 times more powerful than getting a flu shot, which can have a mere six-day effect. By contrast, he says, smoking can increase real age by as much as eight years.

In 1996, RealAge launched a free Internet program ( to spread the message. At the same time, Roizen decided to write a companion book so that RealAge information would be available to everyone. RealAge: Are You as Young as You Can Be? (Cliff Street Books) went through 53 versions, with each chapter reviewed by five physicians and three scientists. Almost five million people have taken the RealAge test on the Internet, and Roizen's book has topped the best-seller lists in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Brazil.

In November, Roizen began a syndicated column, "The Real-Ager," that has been picked up by 11 newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Currently Roizen is working on a second installment of RealAge, called The RealAge Café: Eating In and Eating Out to Keep Your RealAge Young.

"My goal in this is to change the health of the nation," Roizen says. "It's not a small goal. But even if all you're doing is getting people to realize how important lifting weights is or how important taking calcium is, you're having a real effect. Is it changing the health of the nation? No, but give it a little while."-B.B.


Sweet dreams
A research team led by U of C research associate Eve Van Cauter has found that chronic sleep loss can reduce the capacity of even young adults to perform basic metabolic functions. As reported in the October 23 issue of Lancet, when the researchers cut the standard eight hours of sleep down to four for 11 healthy young males, they found that changes in metabolic and endocrine functions resembled the effects of aging. They also suspect that lack of sleep can increase the speed and severity of age-related problems, such as diabetes, obesity, memory loss, and hypertension.

Joking matters
Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (University of Chicago Press), philosophy professor Ted Cohen, AB'62, takes a look at what aspects of humor either make or break a joke. Cohen explores how jokes about sensitive issues, such as Alzheimer's disease or death, can unhinge the listener's sense of morality, while at other times, he writes, jokes can help one laugh while taking a breather from "unbearable affronts like crude racism and stubborn prejudice."

Education first!
Through the last decade, support for education has risen to the top of America's priority list, according to a new National Opinion Research Center survey. Education spending has ranked first place in surveys from 1990, 1996, and 1998, as compared to its rank of sixth (out of 11) in 1973 and 1975. Tom W. Smith, PhD'80, director of the general social survey, links the concern with shortcomings in the education system, the needs of the information age and the global economy, and bipartisan support for education initiatives.

Salamanders get swinging
Male salamanders produce a protein that chemically signals female salamanders to speed up the courtship process and hasten mating, conclude researchers led by graduate student Stephanie M. Rollmann, SM'96, in the September 17 issue of Science. By shortening the amount of courtship time, the salamanders decrease the chance of being interrupted by predators or other males.

Communal CPR
People who live in racially integrated neighborhoods are more likely than those in mostly white areas to receive CPR from bystanders, say U of C researchers in the October 1999 Annals of Emergency Medicine. The chances of getting CPR are even less in a predominantly black neighborhood. The reasons behind the findings are not clear, but team leader and Pritzker third-year Jack T. Iwashyna, says the key point is that "neighborhood characteristics appear to be more important than the characteristics of the cardiac-arrest victim in explaining why people receive CPR."

Japanese banks shrink
Japan's lenders will be trimming down, predicts a National Bureau of Economic Research study by Graduate School of Business associate professor Anil K. Kashyap and UC-San Diego professor Takeo Hoshi. In response to new competition for both its deposit-taking and its lending businesses, Japan's banking system is headed for a "massive contraction," say the researchers.

Social schooling
How do "schools of science" reproduce themselves over time? Do they rely on rigid rules or exist as flexible structures? Sociologist Andrew Abbott, AM'75, PhD'82, addresses such questions in his new book, Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred (University of Chicago Press). Detailing the history of intellectual rivalry and faculty politics in the Chicago School of sociology, Abbott analyzes the shifts in social-scientific inquiry and explores the development of modern-day scholarly publishing. --E.C.

 link to: top of the page


uchicago® ©2000 The University of Chicago® Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166