David A. Freedman, 1938–2008: Eulogy

We're all here because when David died, we lost something: a husband, a father, a friend, a collaborator, a mentor, a teacher, a colleague, an inspiration, an ally, a most worthy adversary, a reason to be humble.

Those who are not here lost something, too. The Department of Justice—and a dozen top law firms—lost their go-to statistician: someone who always got it right, who never missed a detail, and who could not be rattled. Statistics lost one of its strongest advocates of clear thinking, a brilliant and lucid researcher, expositor and teacher. The world lost a giant among scholars, a singular intellect, a voice of reason, a mensch.

I lost one of my closest friends. Someone I could turn to with questions about anything—from math and statistics to my personal life, insurance, doctors, Early Music, where to get a Swiss watch serviced, cheese, what variety of apple was just right this week, hotels in D.C., restaurants, who made the best baguettes (according to David, in the 1980s they stopped cooking the fish and started burning the bread), and what to do for fresh bread on Christmas (buy bagels). I lost countless inside jokes. I lost someone who, not two years ago, cancelled his sabbatical to teach my class when I was bedridden—despite his own bleak prognosis. I lost the person I would call first when something amusing or difficult happened. I lost someone I delighted in, as much as I know he delighted in me.

About two months before he died, David told me he had gotten some grim test results. I said "I'm so sorry." He shrugged that the situation had been clear for some time. I said "David, can't I be sorry that your health isn't good?" He said, "be sorry on your own time." Unfortunately, that time has come, and I continue to be sorry, though now more selfishly. I miss him painfully and I always will.

When I think of David, I see his intelligence, his humor, his generosity, his clarity, his honesty, his scholarship, his intellectual courage and his dogged pursuit of things that were "just so"—words, theorems, food, coffee, furniture, music, literature, fountain pens, cutlery, socks—anything and everything. But especially ideas.

David took a philosophy course as an undergraduate. The professor gave essay assignments, "write what you think about X." David did, and got low marks. After a few iterations, David realized that the assignments were actually "write what I think about X." The professor said he had never seen such improvement. I wonder how much great philosophy went unwritten because that professor wasn't interested in what David had to say. And then I think of David's contributions to causal inference and the foundations of statistics. David was a philosopher, in the original sense of the word—a lover of knowledge. He was a connoisseur of knowledge: his work illuminates fine distinctions between knowledge and wishful thinking, obvious to him, but often subtle to the rest of us.

Whenever David would tell me he didn't understand what I was saying, it was a sure sign that I didn't know what I was talking about. I don't remember disagreeing with him over anything more serious than punctuation, but we had profound differences over semicolons.

David liked to refer to "the outer millimeter," what a person presents to the world. He warned not to extrapolate from the outer millimeter to infer others' inner lives. David's "outer millimeter" was a mile deep. I've never known someone to live, work and die in a way that was so thoroughly consistent: methodically collect data, research what is known (or claimed to be known), think hard, draw one's own conclusions, and act on them intrepidly. David was a revolutionary radical conservative, ever alert to flaws of logic, form and substance; willing—even gleeful—to embarrass the emperor with the truth. Yet his outer millimeter appeared to be at peace with being at odds with the world, and reflected deep empathy for others and continual amusement at reality's quirks and imperfections.

I remember David warning several prospective consulting clients that he is expensive and slow, but compensates by being hard to get along with—an epitome of David's honesty and humor (and his self-knowledge). The day before David died, we went over a list of things he wanted me to do after his death. One was to check his email periodically. I offered to set an automatic response: "David is unlikely to reply to your email in the near future. If he does, please contact James Randi." We had a good laugh. But he asked me not to do it—too tasteless for him.

I am sorry for what we have all lost. And I hope we all find something today: a renewed commitment to scholarship and the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of our lives; the inspiration and example of David's mind, work, and generosity; a happy memory; the comfort of community; and gratitude for what David left behind. Thank you, David. Thank you for all of it.

P.B. Stark, 2 December 2008