While Stephen E. Fienberg’s research was so advanced that most people couldn’t even understand the titles of many of his publications, he brought his mastery of data to bear on real-world problems such as law, education and criminal justice during a 36-year career at Carnegie Mellon University. He influenced policies nationwide in fields ranging from forensic science to census-taking to the prevention of scientific errors being published as fact.
Mr. Fienberg, a professor of statistics and social science at CMU, is also remembered as a supportive mentor to new generations of researchers, an active leader in the Pittsburgh Jewish community and an avid hockey player from his youth in Canada well into his adult years.
Mr. Fienberg died Wednesday at age 74 after a long battle with cancer. He had kept researching, advising students and showing up at his office as recently as a couple of weeks before his death, a colleague recalled.
“Steve was a clear role model for how statisticians can make a difference,” Christopher R. Genovese, head of CMU’s statistics department, said in a statement. “He had an abiding passion for statistics and its role as a force for good in the world.”
“Steve Fienberg’s career has no analogue in my lifetime,” said a statement from Robert Groves, provost of Georgetown University and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau — an agency whose work Mr. Fienberg scrutinized for years. “He ... saw connections among knowledge domains when others couldn’t see them.”
Mr. Fienberg was born on Nov. 27, 1942, in Toronto. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and his master’s and Ph.D. in statistics at Harvard University, completing studies in 1968. He and his wife, Joyce, married in 1965. He became a U.S. citizen in the 1990s. He came to CMU in 1980 after teaching stints at the universities of Chicago and Minnesota.
Jay Kadane, professor emeritus of statistics at CMU, recalled when he recruited Mr. Fienberg to CMU in 1980, he first had to make sure there were opportunities for amateur hockey in Pittsburgh — both for the professor and his young son.
Mr. Fienberg wrote or edited scores of research papers and books. He co-wrote the well-regarded 1999 book, “Who Counts?: The Politics of Census-Taking in Contemporary America.”
He was the only statistician serving on the National Commission on Forensic Science, which issued important recommendations on the uses, and limitations, of statistical and forensic claims in the criminal justice system.
Mr. Fienberg, a member of the National Academy of Science, oversaw a 2002 study that recommended against the use of lie-detector tests by intelligence agencies screening new hires. He said the polygraphs were far more likely to cast suspicion on the innocent than actually catch a would-be spy.
He helped produce a 2015 report recommending ways to prevent and correct the publication of faulty or even fabricated scientific claims by researchers.
He was one of CMU’s “most valued citizens,” provost Farnam Jahanian said.
Among his survivors, in addition to his wife, are sons Anthony Fienberg of Paris, and Howard Fienberg of Vienna, Va., and several grandchildren.
His funeral is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. at Tree of Life/Or L’ Simcha Congregation, 5898 Wilkins Ave., Squirrel Hill.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.