Saturday, March 10, 2007

Passings

I've recently spent some time updating a Wikipedia entry for an acquaintance of mine who died about three and a half years ago, William V. Chambers. Mostly I've been trying to fill in some gaps in the initial entry, to give a bit more of a complete picture of a fellow scholar who, like many of us, toiled in relative obscurity.

I mostly knew Bill due to some discussions on the SEMNET listserv (which at the time I frequented in order to learn a few tips for dealing with some confirmatory factor analyses that I was programming) regarding his iconoclastic approach to inferring causality from correlational data. At the time, my college days were nearing their end and his career had been all but effectively ended by a combination of health problems and personal tragedies. Needless to say, I suspect his view of academicians by then was sufficiently sour as to make it exceedingly difficult for him to tolerate the skeptical reactions he received from many on SEMNET and similar forums.

During the last year of his life he'd started up a Yahoo group devoted to Kelly's Personal Construct Psychology theory, and I joined primarily to see how he was progressing as far as testing out his particular statistical method. At that point, he'd apparently had a manuscript initially accepted - and then rejected under circumstances that always struck me as a bit shady by the journal Structural Equation Modeling. Not long after that event, his messages became sporadic and then he just seemed to drop out altogether. As he had taken extended breaks from the internet before (the combination of ill health and poverty often impose such breaks), I didn't think much of it. Some months later came news of his death.

His main academic contributions came in the field of cultic studies, where he (along with some other colleagues) developed a scale designed to measure cultic abuse. If he were here now, it would interesting to pick his brain on political cults such as the one centered around the current White House resident (but I digress). What will become of his efforts in the realm of quantitative psychology is hard to gauge. The ideas of outsiders are often met with hostility or dismissiveness before being sufficiently tested, and Bill was definitely an outsider. In some ways, I thought he was his own worst enemy in terms of presenting his ideas, which were certainly worth exploring. That said, there appear to be a handful of stats types specializing in causal modeling who have persisted in running simulations to test his techniques (corresponding regressions, corresponding correlations), and I have seen brief commentary of his work in a stats textbook. Jury's still out of course.

The Bill Chambers I got to encounter came across as a curmudgeonly guy with a short temper but a big heart. He was truly one of a kind, and I'm thankful to have had the chance to learn from him.

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