Statistics on the Table: The History of Statistical
Concepts and Methods. By Stephen M. Stigler.
This volume serves up a buffet of delectable and nourishing essays in the history of statistics. Stigler, perhaps the most eminent modern historian of statistics, has here collected twenty-two previously published papers, revised the essays to stand in more nearly appropriate relationships one to another, and defined his historical concerns in a fine introduction.
essay that gives the volume its title, a wonderful piece on Karl Pearson and
his controversies with
One of my
own favorites became Chapter 11, “Apollo Mathematicus”, which begins like
Philip David’s The Thread (Boston: Birkhauser, 1983) with the author,
Stigler, perusing the catalog from an Oxfordshire dealer in antiquarian
books. From that beginning, through the
book of the chapter’s title on mathematical medicine printed in 1695, we have a
rollicking tale of
Part 4, on questions of discovery, take up what would appear to be traditional questions like the origins of the ideas associated with Bayes Theorem, maximum likelihood estimation, least squares, and degrees of freedom. For instance, Chapter 17 on “Gauss and the Invention of Least Squares” revisits, using two new pieces of evidence he develops, earlier studies sorting out the set of claims and counter-claims for priority – among the champions of the Frenchman Legendre, the German Gauss, and the American Adrain -- in the invention of the method of least squares. The issues of discovery, and utilization, of new ideas are treated with sophistication. Indeed, these essays are uniformly informed by a wonderful sensibility: the author has an eye for nuance, irony, and humor, and the wit and energy to see matters through. That Stigler writes so clearly and brings the reader in so easily makes these essays quite special.
The final Part 5 collects studies
about standards. My favorite here is
“The Trial of the Pyx”, which is the name of the British Royal Mint ceremony
“to ascertain that the coinage issued by the Mint met the Crown’s
specifications” (p.383). Of course, such
an event is a sampling procedure, and the complex ceremony is examined from the
perspective of whether its arcane processes are coherent from a modern
perspective – does the Trial make statistical sense? Since
Since the various pieces originally appeared in such widely disparate places, Harvard University Press is to be congratulated for putting this special volume together and making these papers available to the general reader. Anyone who works in an area in which statistics plays an important role will be entertained and delighted by this volume.
E. Roy Weintraub