Stephen Ziliak, RU Professor of Economics, has published a new book, copies of which are available in the library: The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives (University of Michigan Press, 2008). By Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey. David Pribyl, liaison with the economics faculty and Head of Technical Services in the library, interviewed Ziliak, known as "Prof Z."
RU: How, if at all, can a book on statistics deal with issues of social justice?
Prof Z: Good question! For years, I, like most people, did not see any connection at all between statistics and social justice, or, to say it more generally, between statistics and ethics. It wasn't until 1989 - while working at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development - that I saw for the first time how deeply human the seemingly arcane & "objective" world of statistics is.
I worked in the
Labor Market Information Division, where the official state & regional
labor force statistics are generated and disseminated in cooperation with the
U.S. Department of Labor. One day a citizen telephoned.
He asked me to provide unemployment rate statistics for black youth in each of
Finally I went to the chief of my division. He made a phone call to the Chicago branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, to a chief who was next in line in the chain of command. The chief in Chicago replied "given the lack of statistical significance in the black youth unemployment rates, the Department of Labor does not disseminate those rates. We don't publish statistically insignificant results, only 'significant' results," he said. I was embarrassed to return to the telephone to tell the citizen what I learned.
What the Labor Department was saying is that if a rate is not estimated with an arbitrary amount of precision then they won't publish or disseminate it. In technical terms, the p-value had to be equal or less than .10. This standard they glue to even if other evidence suggests that the rate is so high as to constitute what Martin Luther King Jr. called a "Great Depression in the economy of the ghetto." It was a life-changing experience for me. I realized that important social issues get pushed under the rug for pseudo-scientific reasons. But as I show in The Cult very few scientists have had this kind of realization. That precision is not the end all be all of human decision making. Like most members of the cult of statistical significance, the DOL economists and statisticians - my friends & former bosses - do not possess or implement a scientifically legitimate or socially just decision rule. Zero, nil, null, nothing. It has to change.
Prof Z: I
love to do what historians call "archival research" - the
scientific & humanistic study of old
manuscripts & data.
I started my career as an economic historian and historian of
ideas. Historical wisdom is I think one of the best forms of
wisdom which one can acquire in a field such as economics. If you want to
know whether abolishing welfare is a good idea, the first thing to do is
to see what happened in the past - before
and after previous attempts at welfare abolition. If you
want to know if wage & price controls work then go to periods in
history when they've been implemented and you can study those effects.
Well, anyway, to answer your question, the relevant archives for this
book are located at University College London, the
Guinness Brewery in
RU: You've been an
economics professor at
Prof Z: For four
years I taught at
RU: Did you use information resources or libraries while working on the book?
Prof Z: Yes,
I sure did, and still do. The inter-library loan system, the UIC
libraries, and the
RU: What is one thing that you would like people to experience from reading the book?
Prof Z: I would like people to feel in their bones the following maxim: "Precision is nice but Oomph is the bomb." But to feel it - to understand it - you'll have to read the book! Knowing the difference between precision and oomph can save lives, jobs, justice and the environment.
Check out the book at Roosevelt Library, click here for our record
Buy the book online at Amazon, click here.