The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The political scientist Ray Wolfinger has died

(Source: University of California)

Ray Wolfinger, a political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, passed away on Friday. As a political scientist, he was best known as the co-author, with Steven Rosenstone, of perhaps the most influential book on voter turnout, “Who Votes.” Some of his academic articles are here. Prior to his tenure at Berkeley, he was on the faculty at Stanford University. Before his academic career he was, among other things, an assistant to Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) — including when Humphrey served as floor leader during the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Some of the papers related to Ray’s work are here.

Ray was also the source of the well-known aphorism “The plural of anecdote is data.” The details of this are discussed by Richard Winters below.

Thomas Mann, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was — along with his wife, Sheilah — a longtime friend of Ray and his wife, Barbara. He sent these recollections:

I was not an undergraduate or graduate student of Ray’s. That good fortune in our family fell to Sheilah, who studied with Ray during his first years at Stanford.
Sheilah remembers fondly the research team on the “radical right” that Ray and Barbara assembled — as well as their extraordinary kindness, generosity and patience with their junior colleagues. Ray arrived at Stanford as the quintessential new behavioral political scientist – protégé of Robert Dahl, attracted to the methods of modern social science, an empiricist always in search of better data and rigorous thinking and testing. Ray collaborated with his students and colleagues on almost every one of his research projects, and went out of his way to give them full billing and a running start in their new profession.
Sheilah brought me into the orbit of Ray and Barbara in the early 1970s after we met in Washington, D.C. Ray and I worked together on the 1978 American National Election Study (ANES) and then collaborated on an article flowing from it. We participated together in many meetings of the ANES Board of Overseers. When Ray was chair, the coffee was Peet’s and the wine at dinner always top drawer. He shared with me the ins and outs of his long and ultimately successful campaign to get Congress to include his key provision on change of registration address in the “motor voter” law.
I will remember Ray for his incisive wit, legendary quips (like “The plural of anecdote is data”), intellectual rigor, and the loyalty and affection of his many PhDs.
But I will also remember Ray the farmer, whose reading of the ripeness of fresh California produce was unmatched; Ray and Barbara, the gracious and entertaining hosts; the close-knit group of their dear friends whose lives continuously intersected; Ray, whose steely confidence easily overcame his lack of mastery of the French language to order for all four of us in fine Parisian restaurants.

One of Ray’s PhD students, Jonathan Krasno of Binghamton University, sent this:

No one was ever quicker or more critical than Ray Wolfinger. He used to scare the wits out of students in seminars because he seemed to know what we were trying to say before we were fully aware, and had sussed out its weaknesses.
He once gave me an A- on a seminar paper and called the findings “disappointing.” Months later when I reported that the same paper had been accepted at the Journal of Politics and teased him that maybe the findings weren’t disappointing after all, he gently demurred.
No one I’ve ever met has brought such a spirit of healthy skepticism to scholarly endeavors. Ray could make you go back to the beginnings of every argument and reassess each step along the way. The flip side was that he was always willing to listen to and consider virtually any idea, no matter how crazy. It seemed to me that he cared enough about evidence that he was open to changing his mind – if only I’d been able to come up with some evidence or argument that he hadn’t considered.
That may sound daunting and sometimes it was, but the other part of Ray’s appeal was his incredible loyalty and generosity.  If you worked with Ray, you understood intrinsically that he was on your side and eager to make you smarter.  Making students defend ideas, especially by digging up data to support them, was the basic way he did that.  If in private Ray could be skeptical and challenging, in public his support was unwavering.
I ran into Ray in the lobby at my first big political science conference and he eagerly introduced me to the chair of my panel who was wandering innocently by.  This person made some vaguely disparaging remark about my paper and Ray lit into him so thoroughly, literally backing him across the lobby, that I would have felt bad had it not been so damn funny and thrilling.
I am proud to be one of the many PhDs whom Ray mentored, gratified to consider him and his remarkable wife, Barbara, as personal friends, and immensely grateful for his generosity.  The only quasi consolation in his passing is the knowledge that so many people share those feelings.

Richard Winters sends these thoughts:

In Ray Wolfinger’s passing, the discipline has lost a seminal contributor, and many Berkeley and Stanford graduates lost a wonderful teacher, a generous mentor, a kind and considerate colleague, and a personal friend.
Four enduring, albeit minor and personal, teachable moments with Ray endure for me.  In my first year as a comparative politics Ph. D. student at Stanford in 1966, I was at the tail end of registration, and my faculty advisor suggested that I enroll in a course with openings, Ray’s year-long graduate proseminar on American politics.
The major requirement was a “publishable quality paper” for which a prospectus was due January 1.  I chose to examine the effects of “status inconsistency,” drawn from the sociology literature, on political participation and activism.  Oral examinations in class began on January 15 and I was first up.  After some discussion of Gerhard Lenski’s hypothesis about the effects of discrepancies between high and low levels of personal income, education, and occupation, Ray said to me, “Winters, you’ve got three personal status variables and, let’s say, the variable, ‘the percent that voted.’ Go up to the blackboard and generate a set of crosstabs that indicate that you and Lenski are wrong.”  I was completely dumbfounded…”What’s this prove something wrong bit? That’s completely backwards!”  It was a “learnable moment” about the symmetry of confirmation and disconfirmation.
Ray was a close reader.  He and I reviewed line-by-line the first draft of the above paper.  Part way through, he commented, “You wrote ‘et. al.’ here.  What does that stand for?”  My two years of high school Latin suggested et alia.  “OK, so ‘a-l-period’ here is the abbreviation for alia.”  A slow smile began to curl as he gazed at me over his glasses and continued, “. . . so what exactly does the abbreviation “e-t-period” here represent?”  Silence from me, but lesson learned.
Ray’s seminar had such a profound impact that several of us audited it each year we were at Stanford.  Ray was well-known for his quips and aphorisms.  The story of one of his best-known aphorisms, as I remember it, is:  In the proseminar, Robert Dahl’s “Who Governs” and early parts of Ray’s own “The Politics of Progress” were often discussed.  In one session, I casually dismissed one of Ray’s observations about New Haven as “just anecdotal.” He responded, “Winters, you know, the plural of anecdote is data.”  He dropped his copy of “Who Governs” with a thud on the seminar table.  After about a second of silence, cheers (towards Ray) and jeers (towards me) along with laughter, applause, and table-thumping followed in appreciation of his riposte.
The proseminar was a continuing and generous learning experience.  In my last year at Stanford (1969), we were discussing critiques of pluralist analyses of community power.  It was an exhilarating two hours.  At one point, a fellow graduate student and I arrived at exactly the same point in critiquing one article.  Ray captured it in his  1971 article:  “We need a theory of political interests and rational behavior that would state when various groups and classes of individuals ‘should’ pursue given goals, so that we could isolate instances where they had failed to do so and thus identify cases of nonparticipation. Yet there is a flaw in this approach: a group’s failure to act could be either an example of nonparticipation or evidence that the theory was wrong; there is no way to distinguish between the two alternative interpretations.”  And, there at the bottom of that page, is a very generous credit to two graduate students.
Ray was a wonderful, thoughtful, and generous teacher and person.  We will miss him.

When I was a doctoral student at Berkeley, I had the pleasure to take a year-long course with Ray. I remember a particular class meeting when I disagreed with his assertion that there was “a checkbook for every cause” — a view associated with the pluralist vein of political science that was prominent at Yale during his doctoral years. Being young and self-important, I grew increasingly antagonistic.

Afterward, I realized my folly and wrote him to apologize. He wrote me in return — leaving a note in hard copy in my mailbox in the Political Science Department — and assured me that I had nothing to worry about.

He invited the whole class to his house for food and wine to enjoy the hospitality that Tom mentioned. Ray later told me that his excellent taste in wine came from the recommendations he gleaned by periodically examining the recycling bin of his neighbor, the noted wine merchant Kermit Lynch.

Years later, when I was practicing the talk I would give when I interviewed for faculty positions, Ray was in the room even though he had no direct role in my dissertation project. He was, as I recall, the first to interrupt me — skeptically, mercifully — when the talk dragged on far too long.

This merely echoes what Jon and Tom and Richard wrote: Ray was smart and generous and kind — to me and to so many others.  I will miss him too.