Herb Spirer, 1925 – 2018

Herb Spirer / Barak Yedidia

Herb Spirer / Barak Yedidia

We are saddened by the death of Herb Spirer last week in Connecticut, at the age of 93. Herb supported HRDAG since before it formally existed. With his wife Louise, Herb mentored almost everyone—or he mentored their mentors—who works in human rights data analysis today. Herb led a generation of statisticians to work in human rights, and he taught a generation of human rights activists about scientific rigor.

Herb was a military policeman in occupied Japan after World War II. After earning an undergraduate degree in engineering physics, he worked as an engineer, building and programming computers at the dawn of their use in the early 1960s. (My colleagues and I at HRDAG loved listening to those stories.) He got his MA and PhD in operations research from New York University, and in 1966 he began an academic career as a lecturer at the University of Connecticut, where he became a full professor in 1975.

He stayed at UConn for 25 years. He began his human rights related work after a conversation with Richard Savage, the renowned statistician who inspired other statisticians to enter the field of human rights. In A History of the ASA Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights to 2015, Spirer recalls this about his conversation with Savage: “I was helping to make corporations more wealthy for 20 years, and I wanted to help contribute something.”

With his wife Louise Spirer, Herb wrote Data Analysis for Monitoring Human Rights (1994). It was a textbook for statistical novices, and it has since been translated into several languages, including Russian and Nepalese. Herb served as a statistical consultant on data analysis to the United Nations International Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, Human Rights Watch, the Institute for the Study of Genocide and many other NGOs. As a member and chair of the American Statistical Association’s (ASA) Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights, he led a number of human rights campaigns in several countries.

Herb was an indefatigable supporter of scientists attacked for their work. Demographer Beth Daponte remembers that in the early 1990s, Herb “came out of the heavens like an angel in my moment of need and turned my life totally around. I remember the first time I heard his voice. It was on my answering machine in Alexandria. The Washington Post had run the story that morning of how the Census Bureau ‘proposed to fire me’ when [my] Iraqi wartime mortality estimates came out, and it was as if my phone was on constant ring … [but] when I heard Herb’s voice [on the answering machine], I knew that in the long run I would be okay.”

I first met Herb in 1993 through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). We debated database design, and with Louise, he read every one of my dissertation chapters and reports I wrote for the AAAS. He and Louise faxed pages back to me with detailed, invaluable, insightful comments. They were candid, sometimes even rough, but I always felt the depth of the connection and compassion they felt for me. They taught me to write more carefully and to reason more deeply. Herb showed me how to apply statistical thinking to a far wider range of problems than I’d ever before considered.

Perhaps the best example came in 1995. Herb realized that we could compare patterns of homicides documented in the records of the Haitian National University morgue with killings reported to the National Commission for Truth and Justice. After long email conversations while I sat in Port-au-Prince and he sat in Stamford, we found that the two patterns coincided in time and over geography, and we concluded that either the two series were unbiased or that they shared the same bias. This was the first time I considered whether observed data with no probability sampling might not represent the true patterns.

Herb and I later collaborated on a book about Guatemala (State Violence in Guatemala, with Paul Kobrak), and with Louise, we edited a volume of technical reports by staff members of the truth commissions in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, and South Africa (Making the Case). I think Herb and Louise may have rewritten every one of the technical reports, and their insistence on clarity and focus is the central reason that volume is so valuable to both technical and non-technical readers.

Herb and Louise taught human rights activists at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) during the late 1990s. One of their co-teachers, Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch, recalled: “Herb taught me about the stories that numbers can tell: the hidden lines of truth that make a forceful human rights case. He demanded rigor in the collection and analysis of data, as a professional scientist would. And he pushed for that analysis to feed into the conclusions and recommendations that we make so abuses are minimized or stopped.”

Another of the Spirers’ SIPA colleagues was Scott Campbell, now at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. Scott recalls “Herb’s boundless energy and contagious enthusiasm for human rights and science. He was so passionate about both— and getting the science (and data) right to advance human rights as effectively as possible.”

Herb was given many awards related to his human rights advocacy. He was elected as a Fellow of the ASA (1994) and a member of the International Statistical Association in recognition of his achievements in applying statistical analysis to human rights. In 2009, he was inducted into the UConn Hall of Fame with an Emeritus Faculty Award.

He was funny, he was kind, and he was full of infectious enthusiasm. At a party for human rights activists at my house in 1996—he would have been 71—he challenged everyone there to a push-up contest. He got no takers because he was so obviously fitter than any of us who were 40 years younger. He insisted instead that we push back the furniture and turn up the music. He and Louise danced so gracefully that we were inspired to live and love as well as they did.

Herb’s life exemplified the best of what a scientist can offer: precision, honesty, modesty and a fascination for technical concerns bound to a deep commitment to making the world a better place. I know I speak for dozens of others when I say it is among my life’s greatest points of pride to number myself among his students.

Donations can be made in memory of Herbert Spirer to the Spirer/Dueker Student Humanitarian Achievement Award Fund at the University of Connecticut. Please make checks payable to: The UConn Foundation, Inc. and include the following: Spirer/Dueker Student Humanitarian Achievement Award Fund (#30821). In memory of Herbert Spirer and mail to: UConn Foundation, 2390 Alumni Drive Unit 3206, Storrs, CT 06269 or donate online.