RESEARCH TALK ▼

FREEDOM OF THOUGHT.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DONALD B. RUBIN


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SHORT PROFILE

Name: Donald B. Rubin
Field: Statistics
Location: United States
Occupation: John L. Loeb Professor of Statistics, Harvard University
Research Interests: Causal Inferences, Inference in Sample Surveys, Empirical Bayesian Techniques

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▐  Donald B. Rubin is Professor of Statistics at Harvard University, where he has been professor since 1983. He tells us about people that influenced him throughout his life, explains the importance of being creative in your work and gives some insights into his struggle with political correctness.

 

 

   On how people can inspire you to change research fields…

   D.R. It is right to say that many of my career decisions are somehow based on the people I met and who inspired me. I think I generally enjoy people. I enjoy talking to them, I enjoy exchanging ideas, and so I was probably quite driven by people I find it interesting to talk about ideas with. For example, my original change of fields from Physics to Psychology was at least in a hindsight created by a guy who I greatly admired. He was a physics professor at Princeton in my first year there. His name was John Wheeler, quite the famous guy.

 

   On different structures in German and American universities…

   D.R. Well, in the United States especially, there is more flexibility in the different kinds of courses you can take. There is much less concentration at the beginning. When we meet PhD students for instance, we find that students who have college degrees in Europe are much more specialised in their knowledge about that area than the ones in the United States. In the United States if they are doing Mathematics, they have taken some Math courses, they have taken Literature courses, they have taken Drama courses, all in all lots of different courses. Whereas here, it is much more concentrated because your concentration often already starts when you are 16/17 years old.

   So, having studied in the United States, you could take all of the information you gathered in physics and transfer it sort of to psychology. You weren't so concentrated that it is all you know about. In fact, you are actually encouraged to take other courses outside the specialty. So it was relatively easy to say: "God, this is really interesting stuff, I have never been exposed to this before and especially at this level". By at this level I mean in psychology people who had really interesting ideas, were interesting to talk to and because in High School you don't have interesting psychology courses. You just have basic usual reading and writing. You don’t have other fields that are of intellectual interest instead you pick those up that are offered. You expose them, you don't pick them up, you expose them when you get to college.

 

   On building a framework of values and ethics during his career to guide his work…

   D.R. I have never thought about it that way but it is probably true. My father was a lawyer. He is one of four brothers, all of them are lawyers. It is easy to make jokes about them because they are always arguing things that often make no sense but you have laws. So you should either follow them, that is my family's attitude, or you should try your best to change them. But you don’t want to sort of disobey them. It doesn't work in the long run, because everyone has their own values and everything falls apart. You try to have the sort of structure you believe. Freedom is definitely one of them! Freedom of thought. I am not very big at political correctness. I think most of this is kind of silly. That you try to have guidelines on how people should behave because somebody else may get offended. It loses a lot of humour. If you don't have a sense of humour about people, that can be pretty dull.

 

   On why political correctness influenced his involvement with Tobacco regulations…

   D.R. Certainly in Statistics it is probably easier to think about more recent topics than go back in time. I have been pulled into issues that I think are important. Sometimes they are out of a rebellion against this idea of political correctness. For example, I have been involved in Tobacco regulations probably since the mid 70s or something like that. And basically the idea towards that is: "You didn't make it illegal?".

Governments at least in the United States or in Canada can't make it illegal because it is too profitable for the governments. You buy a pack of cigarettes and half the money goes in taxes. They make a fortune. It also has big economic benefits for governments. There is also no doubt that smoking causes disease, it creates shorter life, but it creates shorter life at the end of life. It typically isn't so hard anyway. And people who die earlier never collect social security. So the government makes even more money, it is too profitable for them to make it illegal. I am no fan of tobacco at all.

 

   On the importance of creativity…

    D.R. Literature reviews are overvalued because once you have read too much about a subject, it is very hard to be creative. So try to think about: Here is the problem, what is really essential here? Not what people think is important. What is really essential? Be creative about it first. I wouldn't start out doing literature review. I think it is highly overvalued. You read a bunch of things, thoughts other people have had that may not have gone anywhere. So why do that? I think that it destroys creativity! If you get too enamoured of what people have done, it is really hard to see the novelty about it.

 

"Literature reviews are overvalued because once you have read too much about a subject, it is very hard to be creative."

 

   On opening up to other areas to see what you are good at…

   D.R. I think I am actually pretty good at assessing what people are good at and what they are not good at. I think it is often pretty difficult for a kid to understand that. Because when you are young, you are often very good at Mathematics. Kids who are smart, can do Maths. But that is because it is really easy to score. If you are musical prodigy, everyone knows this kid is talented! But if you are good in literature or social sciences, that is hard to judge. I think when kids are young, they don't perceive what they are good at because they are comparing themselves to a bunch of people and do not have the bigger picture of what other possibilities are. Whereas, when you have been out there for long enough, you see what the other areas are.

 




// Interview: Katrin Bernsdorff, Uta Brehm /
Editing: Mareike Bartels, Amanda Ngin

 

 

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