Robert Hooke (1918-2003)

Today my father, Robert Hooke, were he still alive, would have turned 93. He was a remarkable person. My mother, brother, and I still miss him every day. Others he mentored mourn his loss as well.

Later in this post I share a bit of his writing. You’ll find it germane to our subject matter here on Living on the Real World.

But first a little background. [My heart aches to say much more but this will do for the moment.] If you’ve been reading this blog all along, you might have picked up an occasional reference to my dad. Got time on your hands? The dates for those posts would be August 17, August 30, September 7, December 8, December 20, and January 14. You can check them out. You might also remember that he was a mathematician (Ph.D. Princeton, 1941). His thesis was on linear p-adic groups and their Lie algebras.

What a topic! Really gets your heart racing, doesn’t it? He published his thesis in Annals of Mathematics. If you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can easily find the first page on the web here, and can get the rest for a fee. [Everything is on the web these days!]

Dad got his start as a professor. But then, just about the time that university positions started to become a pretty good gig, he decided he had to get into something more applied. Some would say he left at just the wrong moment! But he taught himself statistics. He went back to Princeton for three years and worked with one of the greatest statisticians of all time, John Tukey.

While there, he and others worked with Tukey on many projects. One of these? A thorough statistical analysis of weather modification science, done in the 1950’s. The team cast skepticism on a number of the claims of the time. I mention this because it would come back to haunt me years later. In 1984 I found myself managing a gaggle of NOAA research projects that included the Weather Modification Research Program. This was a Congressional earmark, channeling funds to weather modification research in North Dakota, Illinois, Utah, and Nevada. John Flueck, a statistician for the program (and a wonderful guy), went writing and calling around the country to the P.I.’s, saying, “You’d better be on your toes now! Bob Hooke’s son is taking over the Program!”

Anyway, fast forward a little bit. One year I read a remarkable collection of essays by Lewis Thomas, entitled The Lives of a Cell: notes of a biology watcher, (Bantam Books, 1974, 180 pp), which won a National Book Award. I thought Dad might like it for birthday reading. What a success! The book enchanted him. He told me, “I didn’t know scientists were allowed to write like this!”

Well, when he retired just a few years later, he decided to give it a try, writing a little book of essays entitled How to Tell the Liars from the Statisticians. Viewed through today’s lens, the collection reads like posts from a blog…but this was decades before there were such things. I’ve typed in an excerpt below, with a bit of trepidation, because I’m sharing this without permission (and I don’t mean the publisher; I mean my mother!).

“Statistics Are – Statistics Is[1]

______________________

 “Almost everyone has heard that “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.” We need statistics, but liars give them a bad name, so to be able to tell the liars from the statisticians is crucial.

It is commonly believed that anyone who tabulates numbers is a statistician. This is like believing that anyone who owns a scalpel is a surgeon. A statistician is one who has learned how to get valid evidence from statistics and how (usually) to avoid being misled by irrelevant facts. It’s too bad that we apply the same name to this kind of person that we use for those who only tabulate. It’s as if we had the same name for barbers and brain surgeons because they both work on the head.

Most people think of statistics as plural: collections of numbers and little else. To statisticians, statistics is singular: a fascinating subject that relates to almost everything we do. A quick glance at the index will support this position. Statistics-singular deals with things other subjects dismiss as unpredictables (“your mileage may vary”) with chance and choice and tradeoffs, with the basis of government policy, with cause and effect, and so with the very essence of science.

The formal educational process provides very little information about statistics-singular to most students. This leaves the students vulnerable to those individuals I call the data pushers, who, somewhat like dope pushers, try to gain control over us with their product. “Liars” may be too strong a word for them, since it suggests falsification of data. The data pushers include, in descending order of maliciousness, those who deliberately try to deceive us with true but misleading data, those whose enthusiasm for a cause leads them to do this unconsciously, and those who merely combine their misinformation with persuasiveness.

A kind of perverse enjoyment can be had from watching the data pushers and spotting the flaws in their arguments. This spectator sport, like all others, requires a little knowledge of what the players are doing, and that’s what I’ve tried to provide. All of us would be better off if more of us would acquire the habit of reading or listening critically when people are quoting numbers.

History is supposed to teach us how to deal with the present and the future, but it doesn’t do that if we look at it merely as a record of events. So also statistics-plural don’t teach us much if we look at them as dead records of the past – when you’ve seen ten numbers you’ve seen them all. But statistics-singular has to do with how we use numerical records to deal with the chanciness of our lives. This is my subject, together with some digressions into related areas where misconceptions based on numbers abound.”

His book contains many more of these essays, all equally fresh, insightful, and meticulously crafted.

I mentioned Mom. Dad would want me to recognize her. The acknowledgment in the front of this book (he wrote a couple more) reads, “For Annis, who helped and insisted.”  And this is what Dad would say: Everything he achieved – and it was a lot – he accomplished because she encouraged and aided him every step of the way. And did you get the “insisted” part? That was vital in this mix! [Some of you have played the “insisted” part in my life as well, and for that I’m truly thankful. You know who you are.]

Mom took most of life’s vexations and irritants off Dad’s plate. She served as his deputy and administrative assistant. She loved him with a full heart. She helped (really did the lion’s share – common for that generation) raise the kids. She taught my brother and me how to do life. She held Dad (never herself; she was too modest) up to us as the paradigm of the virtues: honesty, integrity, humility…it was a pretty long list. Other fathers might teach their sons how to do dry wall, repair leaky plumbing, change the car’s spark plugs, hunt and fish…and talk to girls. [My brother and I ached for those lessons…especially the last one!] But Dad largely skipped that part. Instead, at the supper table and after, he would teach us a little math, as much as we could handle.  Years later, both my brother (who himself went on to become a statistician and manager at Bell Labs, developing quite a reputation in the world of queueing theory) and I would say it was a good trade.

You’ve read Dad’s writing. Imagine someone like this, professionally active today, commenting on the use and abuse of statistics-singular in environmental science and services, from climate change to water resource management, to air and water quality, to the expression of uncertainty in daily weather forecasts. The world would be a better place, and its inhabitants more astute.

Happy Birthday, Dad. We miss you.


[1] Essay 1, excerpted from How to Tell the Liars from the Statisticians, by Robert Hooke 173 pp, Marcel Dekker press (1983). You can still find this book on Amazon.com.

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