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Fritz Scheuren: Human Rights Volunteer and Mensch

1 September 2011 3,807 views 4 Comments
Megan Murphy, ASA Communications Manager


During his ASA presidential address, Fritz Scheuren said he needed to focus his presidency on a theme, so he chose the line “use our discipline to enhance human welfare,” which comes from the ASA mission statement. It is easy to see why he decided on this expression as the aim of his administration—it is also his life’s dictum. His commitment to improving the lives of others is evident through his human rights projects, volunteer work, and leadership activities.

Perhaps he is dedicated to helping people because, despite having a loving family, Scheuren’s childhood was difficult. Growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, he lived in the projects with his mother, Kathryn, and sister, Marie, and attended Boston College High School. Every day, he walked across a dump to get to school, and those were the days when open burning was still permitted. “I enjoyed school,” he said, “but because of my poverty and where I lived, it was also challenging.”

John Scheuren stands with Fritz and his grandsons (from left), John and James, in Boston, 1987.

After high school, Scheuren thought he wanted to become a teacher, so he attended Tufts University and majored in English literature. By the time he graduated, however, he didn’t think he was developed enough as a person to teach, so he looked for a technical job. Eventually, he was recruited to work as a management intern for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). “They wanted to hire a statistician, and because I was not one, they paid for classes,” he explained. “I immediately began taking statistics courses at The George Washington University (GWU), and after nine years of night school, I eventually earned my PhD.”

Scheuren saw how his work as a statistician could help others when, in 1966, he helped develop—along with Staunton Calvert and Jim Smith—the first IRS estate multiplier estimates. “The estimates,” he said, “looked at the wealth of the rich. Paradoxically, that made me realize how big was my survivor’s guilt for escaping the projects. So, I joined Smith at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and began working on the War on Poverty—the other war we lost in that era.”

Fritz Scheuren and his sister, Marie, 1946

While he was at the OEO, Scheuren went to work part time for the Social Security Administration (SSA), assessing the results of large-scale surveys. “I became fascinated by the measurement of income in large-scale surveys, and SSA was the place to be in those days,” he said. “Mollie Orshansky, who developed the first U.S. credible poverty estimates, was also there at the time.” In 1973, Scheuren started working full time at the SSA and, with his team, produced a landmark series of 11 volumes on interagency data linkages. In 1979, he became SSA’s chief mathematical statistician.

On a Personal Note
You have written many books and papers. Are you proud of one in particular?
Usually, the latest one, but the word “proud” needs to be replaced. Another word, “humbled,” fits better. So many wonderful people to meet, things to do! But as one of the lines in a Robert Frost poem goes, “I have miles to walk, before I sleep.” A few I hope, maybe so I can meet those of you who took the time to read this?
Do you have a favorite book you recommend to others?
Too many to mention, but okay, two that may not be familiar to statisticians: Translated from the Japanese: An Introduction to Quality Control (Ishikawa, 1990) and The Measure of Reality (Crosby, 1996).
Throughout your education and career, what are some of the important things you have learned?
From my experience, statisticians do not ask questions to get answers (although our clients usually do). What we do, as statisticians, is to search for a better question (and the next surprise that data will give us).
What activities besides human rights occupy your time?
I continue to write and speak on the statistical questions of the day. Besides my many statistician friends at NORC, like Susan Hinkins and Ed Mulrow, I continue to learn from the likes of Rod Little, Phil Kott, and Patricia Whitridge.

Despite his success at the SSA, Scheuren applied to become the director for statistics at the IRS—now the Statistics of Income Division (SOI). “When they asked me why I wanted to return to the IRS, I just blurted out, ‘I want to go home.’ Ironically, I was not prepared for that obvious question! So, it came out unrehearsed and won me the job, I am sure.”

As the longtime director of SOI, Scheuren transformed the organization and revitalized the program. “I had a great group of colleagues on my team, such as Tom Petska, Mike Leszcz, and Susan Hinkins,” Scheuren said. “The biggest technical problem we overcame was achieving transparency while maintaining statistical disclosure protection. A second success was in achieving growing interagency cooperation, this time in support of the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). Supporting the SCF was another way for me to study the U.S. tax/transfer system and the nature of U.S. income/wealth inequality.”

Scheuren was recognized for his efforts at SOI in 1995, when he was given the Shiskin Award in Economic Statistics for breaking ground in the construction of microeconomic files.

Life of the Pro Bono Statistician

During his presidential address, Scheuren remarked that his initiation into human rights work started with a call from Tom Jabine in 1994. Jabine asked him to participate in an information gathering coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Scheuren’s main role was to read reports about civilian casualties from land mines in Cambodia and tell Herb Spirer from Columbia University whether they made sense. Why was it important for a statistician to read these reports? “Because statisticians provide objectivity to settings dominated by advocates,” said Scheuren. It was Spirer who later told him one of the major downfalls of advocacy is overstatement.

Although Scheuren participated in many human rights projects, it was while sitting behind a computer. But in 1999, he got out from behind his desk and traveled to Albania to help count refugees fleeing from the former Yugoslavia. Patrick Ball, then at the AAAS, was going to Kosovo to survey the refugees and Scheuren asked if he could help. When they arrived, people were streaming across the Albanian border, yet the guards were unperturbed. “One of the border guards had loose sheets of paper in his hands on which he was writing down the family names and counting the members of each group as they went by,” Scheuren recalled. “When he saw us looking at him, he raised the registrations over his head, as if he were saying, ‘We are in control.’ Patrick and I realized that, if we had those records, we could hold the perpetrators accountable. How to get them, then, became the issue.”

Scheuren and Ball returned to the states to retrieve several scanners, which Ball took back with him to Albania. Risking his safety, Ball went to the border, secured the records, and scanned them. Those data became the main data set used at The Hague war crime trials.

After Scheuren’s work with the refugees in Albania, David Nolle of the U.S. State Department asked him to design a survey of the Afghans in refugee camps in Pakistan. Although Scheuren wanted to go to Pakistan personally, Ruth Citrin, who was in charge of the project, went instead and did the analysis using Scheuren’s sampling and data collection design. Scheuren noted in his presidential address that the Afghan survey had to be done quickly and in secret to protect the identity of the contractor and those who did the interviewing.

The refugee camps in Pakistan were complex and held three waves of refugees—some from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, some from the Taliban takeover, and some from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing. “When you are doing survey quality management in a situation like that,” said Scheuren, “there are lots of challenges.”

Besides handling the survey in two languages, Nolle and Scheuren faced monitoring the contractors from a distance. Six months after the fieldwork was done, they wrote a paper about their experience and presented it at the 2002 Joint Statistical Meetings. The paper also appears in the book Statistical Methods for Human Rights, edited by Jana Asher, David Banks, and Fritz Scheuren.

Refugee Camps, 1999

Refugee Camps, 1999

Soon after his presidential address, Scheuren, Jim Cochran, Steve Pierson, and Gary Shapiro formed Statistics Without Borders (SWB), an apolitical group of volunteer professionals who help international health workers around the world. Since then, the organization has worked on several projects, including collecting economic data for the victims of the Haiti earthquake. Currently, there are more than 200 volunteer statisticians supporting several SWB projects. “None of us has the time, of course,” Scheuren said when asked how a statistician can begin volunteering, “but let’s offer solidarity anyway.”

Fritz Scheuren (left) poses with Patrick Ball of AAAS (right) and statistical consultant Julia Belanger as they depart for the data collection and sampling phase of the survey of Kosovar refugees in Albania, 1999.

Human rights issues are a large part of Scheuren’s volunteer work, but as a statistician, he also believes statistical thinking is needed for the election process. “The 2000 presidential election showed me a place where statistics can add value. So I jumped in and slowly learned enough to help.”

Inspired by his wife, Elizabeth, who is an election official in Virginia, Scheuren volunteers as a poll-taker and monitors voting problems and voter behavior in the United States. “If we are going to have better elections,” Scheuren said in his presidential address “statistical thinking is needed in much larger doses, so I ask you, who is there to do that job, if not us real statisticians?”

The Day Job

Over the years, Scheuren has applied his survey and sampling expertise as a teacher and consultant, but much of his paid work has involved human rights matters as well. In 1999, as senior fellow at the Urban Institute, he was chief author of the National Survey of America’s Families (NSAF) Methodology Series. NSAF was designed to measure the effect of welfare reform on the poor. “This was another landmark project I got to participate in,” Scheuren said. “The main challenges were living up to high-quality standards, but being realistic about what could be accomplished in a world of declining response rates.”

Distinguished George Washington University Alumni Achievement Award (2006)
American Immigration Lawyers Association Human Rights Award (2005)
Harry V. Roberts Statistical Advocate Award (2004)
Chartered Statistician, Royal Statistical Society (2003)
American Statistical Association Founders Award (1998)
Julius Shiskin Award (1995)
Elected Member, International Statistical Institute (1988)
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (1984)
Fellow, American Statistical Association (1981)

The survey was a major part of the Urban Institute’s assessment of the New Federalism project, with nearly 300 publications on welfare reform and related issues. At the time, Scheuren’s distribution of NSAF data and metadata was considered a near state-of-the-art example of web-distributed statistical public use data sets.

Since 2001, Scheuren has worked as the vice president of statistics at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. “I went to work at NORC drawn there by another project that was value driven. A book on this is coming out this winter, which is currently titled The Cobell Indian Trust Case: The Statistical Back Story.” As part of an interdisciplinary team at NORC, Scheuren evaluates the impact on poverty reduction in other countries under grants from the Millennium Challenge Corporation. So far, he has worked in Armenia, Georgia, Lesotho, and Vanuata.

Whether volunteering his time at the polls or working to enhance human welfare, Scheuren continues to encourage others to get involved. “We American statisticians need to catch up with our times. Too many of us are working on dead problems from textbooks and not ‘getting out from behind the desk,’ as Deming advocated.”

When asked what advice he would give someone interested in becoming a statistician, he said, “Our statistical discipline gives us a set of tools to better live our values. It is not the ‘whole deal’ though. So don’t settle for just being a statistician, be a mensch, a complete person.”

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  • Sastry Pantula said:

    Keep up the good work Fritz. We are proud of you and proud of all you do! Thank you!

  • Miranda Berishvili said:

    For five years we have known each other, you have never failed to surprise me. I have seldom met such a diverse person. Your dedication to statistics is so contagious that I, philologist, also fell in love with statistics. Thanks to this article I learnt more facets of your life. I loved the pictures. You have good friends in Georgia (Caucasus). We are honored to call you our friend.

  • Val Pisacane said:

    I was so fortunate to have attended one of your classes at GW. While anyone could have taught an introductory course, your passion for statistics and humanity were inspiring. Congratulations on this great recognition of your work.

  • Rommel (Seattle Airport Marriott) said:

    I’m very honoured and lucky to talk and shake hands to our hero in person. He’s very warm and down to earth. I’m very impressed with his accomplishment for every human kind. Congratulations and God Bless you.