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Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Will to Understand Power: Neyman’s Nursery

Way back when, although I’d never met him, I sent my doctoral dissertation, Philosophy of Statistics, to one person only: Professor Ronald Giere. (And he would read it, too!) I knew from his publications that he was a leading defender of frequentist statistical methods in philosophy of science, and that he'd worked for at time with Birnbaum in NYC;
Some ten years ago, he decided to quit philosophy of statistics (while remaining in philosophy of science): I believe that he’d had enough of a certain form of statistical exile.  He asked me if I wanted his papers—a mass of work on statistics and statistical foundations gathered over many years. Could I make a home for them? I said yes. Then came his caveat: there would be a lot of them.

As it happened, we were building a new house at the time, Thebes, and I designed a special room on the top floor that could house a dozen or so file cabinets. (I painted it pale rose, with white lacquered book shelves up to the ceiling.) Then, for more than 9 months (same as my son!), I waited . . . Several boxes finally arrived, containing hundreds of files—each meticulously labeled with titles and dates.  More than that, the labels were hand-typed!  I thought, If Ron knew what a slob I was, he likely would not have entrusted me with these treasures. (Perhaps he knew of no one else who would  actually want them!)
I assumed that I knew most of the papers, certainly those by Neyman, Pearson, and Birnbaum, but the files also contained early drafts, pale mimeo versions of papers, and, best of all, hand-written comments Giere had exchanged with Birnbaum and others, before the work was all tidied-up.  For a year or so, the papers received few visits. Then, in 2003, after a storm that killed our internet connection, I climbed the stairs to find an article of Birnbaum’s (more on this later).
I was flipping through some articles (that I assumed were in Neyman’s books and collected works) when I found one, then another, and then a third Neyman paper that would turn out to be dramatically at odds, philosophically—in ways large and small—from everything I had read by Neyman on Neyman and Pearson methods. (Aris Spanos and I came to refer to them as the “hidden Neyman papers,” below.) So what was so startling? Stay tuned . . .

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