The Defenestration of Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher

Fisher has been defenestrated. Literally.

Sir Ronald Fisher was a brilliant statistician. Born in 1890, he won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, in Cambridge University, in 1909. Three years later, he gained first class honors in Mathematics, and he went on to have extraordinary careers in genetics and statistics. In 1929, Fisher was elected to the Royal Society, and in 1952, Queen Bessy knighted him for his many contributions to the realm, including his work on experimental design and data interpretation, and his bridging the Mendelian theory of genetics and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In 1998, Bradley Efron described Fisher as “the single most important figure in 20th century statistics.[1] And in 2010, University College, London, established the “R. A. Fisher Chair in Statistical Genetics” in honor of Fisher’s remarkable contributions to both genetics and statistics. Fisher’s college put up a stained-glass window to celebrate its accomplished graduate.

Fisher was, through his interest in genetics, also interested in eugenics through the application of genetic learning to political problems. For instance, he favored abolishing extra social support to large families, in favor of support proportional to the father’s wages. Fisher also entertained with some seriousness grand claims about the connection between rise and fall of civilizations and the loss of fertility among the upper classes.[2] While a student at Caius College, Fisher joined the Cambridge Eugenics Society, as did John Maynard Keynes. For reasons having to do with professional jealousies, Fisher’s appointment at University College London, in 1933, was as a professor of Eugenics, not Statistics.

After World War II, an agency of the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sought to forge a scientific consensus against racism, and Nazi horrors.[3] Fisher participated in the UNESCO commission, which he found to be “well-intentioned” but errant for failing to acknowledge inter-group differences “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development.”[4]

Later in the UNESCO report, Fisher’s objections are described as the same as those of Herman Joseph Muller, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1946, The report provides Fisher’s objections in his own words:

“As you ask for remarks and suggestions, there is one that occurs to me, unfortunately of a somewhat fundamental nature, namely that the Statement as it stands appears to draw a distinction between the body and mind of men, which must, I think, prove untenable. It appears to me unmistakable that gene differences which influence the growth or physiological development of an organism will ordinarily pari passu influence the congenital inclinations and capacities of the mind. In fact, I should say that, to vary conclusion (2) on page 5, ‘Available scientific knowledge provides a firm basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development,’ seeing that such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.”[5]

Fisher’s comments may not be totally anodyne by today’s standards, but he had also commented that that:

“the practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature, and that this problem is being obscured by entirely well-intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist.”[6]

Fisher’s comments seem to reflect his beliefs in the importance of the genetic contribution to “intelligence and emotional development,” which today retain both their plausibility and controversial status. Fisher’s participation in the UNESCO effort, and his emphasis on sharing resources peacefully, seem to speak against malignant racism, and distinguish him from the ugliness of the racism expressed by the Marxist statistician (and eugenicist) Karl Pearson.[7]

Cancel Culture Catches Up With Sir Ronald A. Fisher

Nonetheless the Woke mob has had its daggers out for Sir Ronald, for some time. Back in June of this year, graffiti covered the walls of Caius College, calling for the defenestration of Fisher.  A more sedate group circulated a petition for the removal of the Fisher window.[8] Later that month, the university removed the Fisher window, literally defenestrating him.[9]

The de-platforming of Fisher was not contained to the campus of a college in Cambridge University.  Fisher spent some of his most productive years, outside the university, at the Rothamsted Experimental Station.  Not to be found deficient in the metrics of social justice, Rothamsted Research issued a statement, on June 9, 2020, concerning its most famous resident scientist:

“Ronald Aylmer Fisher is often considered to have founded modern statistics. Starting in 1919, Fisher worked at Rothamsted Experimental Station (as it was called then) for 14 years.

Among his many interests, Fisher supported the philosophy of eugenics, which was not uncommon among intellectuals in Europe and America in the early 20th Century.

The Trustees of the Lawes Agricultural Trust, therefore, consider it appropriate to change the name of the Fisher Court accommodation block (opened in 2018 and named after the old Fisher Building that it replaced) to ‘AnoVa Court’, after the analysis of variance statistical test developed by Fisher’s team at Rothamsted, and which is widely used today. Arrangements for this change of name are currently being made.”

I suppose that soon it will verboten to mention Fisher’s Exact Test.

Daniel Cleather, a scientist and self-proclaimed anarchist, goes further and claims that the entire enterprise of statistics is racist.[10] Cleather argues that mathematical models of reality are biased against causal explanation, and that this bias supports eugenics and politically conservative goals. Cleather claims that statistical methods were developed “by white supremacists for the express purpose of demonstrating that white men are better than other people.” Cleather never delivers any evidence, however, to support his charges, but he no doubt feels strongly about it, and feels unsafe in the presence of Fisher’s work on experimental methods.

It is interesting to compare the disparate treatment that other famous scholars and scientists are receiving from the Woke. Aristotle was a great philosopher and “natural philosopher” scientist. There is a well-known philosophical society, the Aristotlean Society, obviously named for Aristotle, as is fitting. In the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the Aristotlean Society engaged in this bit of moral grandstanding, of which The Philosopher would have likely disapproved:

A statement from the Aristotelian Society

“The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have underlined the systemic racism and racial injustice that continue to pervade not just US but also British society. The Aristotelian Society stands resolutely opposed to racism and discrimination in any form. In line with its founding principles, the Society is committed to ensuring that all its members can meet on an equal footing in the promotion of philosophy. In order to achieve this aim, we will continue to work to identify ways that we can improve, in consultation with others. We recognise it as part of the mission of the Society to actively promote philosophical work that engages productively with issues of race and racism.”

I am sure it occurred to the members of the Society that Aristotle had expressed a view that some people were slaves by nature.[11] Today, we certainly do not celebrate Aristotle for this view, but we have not defenestrated him for a view much more hateful than any expressed by Sir Ronald. My point is merely that the vaunted Aristotelian Society is well able to look at the entire set of accomplishments of Aristotle, and not throw him out the window for his views on slavery. Still, if you have art work depicting Aristotle, you may be wise to put it out of harms way.

If Aristotle’s transgressions were too ancient for the Woke mob, then consider those of Nathan Roscoe Pound, who was the Dean of Harvard Law School, from 1916 to 1936. Pound wrote on jurisprudential issues, and he is generally regarded as the founder of “sociological jurisprudence,” which seeks to understand law as influenced and determined by sociological conditions. Pound is celebrated especially by the plaintiffs’ bar, for his work for National Association of Claimants‘ Compensation Attorneys, which was the precursor to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and the current, rent-seeking, American Association for Justice. A group of “compensation lawyers” founded the Roscoe Pound –American Trial Lawyers Foundation (now the The Pound Civil Justice Institute) in 1956, to build on Pound’s work.

Pound died in 1964, but he lives on in the hearts of social justice warriors, who seem oblivious of Pound’s affinity for Hitler and Nazism.[12] Pound’s enthusiasm was not a momentary lapse, but lasted a decade according to Daniel R. Coquillette, professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School.[13] Although Pound is represented in various ways as having been a great leader throughout the Harvard Law School, Coquillette says that volume two of his history of the school will address the sordid business of Pound’s Nazi leanings. In the meanwhile, no one is spraying graffiti on Pound’s portraits, photographs, and memorabilia, which are scattered throughout the School.

I would not want my defense of Fisher to be taken as a Trumpist “what-about” rhetorical diversion. Still, the Woke criteria for defenestrations seem, at best, to be applied inconsistently. More important, the Woke seem to have no patience for examining the positive contributions made by those they denounce. In Fisher’s (and Aristotle’s) case, the balance between good and bad ideas, and the creativity and brilliance of his important contributions, should allow of people of good will to celebrate his many achievements, without moral hand waving. If the Aristotelian Society can keep its name, the Cambridge should be able to keep its stained-glass window memorial to Fisher.

[1]        Bradley Efron, “R. A. Fisher in the 21st century,” 13 Statistical Science 95, 95 (1998).

[2]        See Ronald A. Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection 228-55 (1930) (chap. XI, “Social Selection of Fertility,” addresses the “decay of ruling classes”).

[3]        UNESCO, The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry (1952).

[4]        Id. at 27 (noting that “Sir Ronald Fisher has one fundamental objection to the Statement, which, as he himself says, destroys the very spirit of the whole document. He believes that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development.”)

[5]        Id. at 56.

[6]        Id. at 27.

[7]        Karl Pearson & Margaret Moul, “The Problem of Alien Immigration into Great Britain, Illustrated by an Examination of Russian and Polish Jewish Children, Part I,” 1 Ann. Human Genetics 5 (1925) (opining that Jewish immigrants “will develop into a parasitic race. […] Taken on the average, and regarding both sexes, this alien Jewish population is somewhat inferior physically and mentally to the native population.” ); “Part II,” 2 Ann. Human Genetics 111 (1927); “Part III,” 3 Ann. Human Genetics 1 (1928).

[8]        “Petition: Remove the window in honour of R. A. Fisher at Gonville & Caius, University of Cambridge.” See Genevieve Holl-Allen, “Students petition for window commemorating eugenicist to be removed from college hall; The petition surpassed 600 signatures in under a day,” The Cambridge Tab (June 2020).

[9]        Eli Cahan, “Amid protests against racism, scientists move to strip offensive names from journals, prizes, and more,” Science (July 2, 2020); Sam Kean “Ronald Fisher, a Bad Cup of Tea, and the Birth of Modern Statistics: A lesson in humility begets a scientific revolution,” Distillations (Science History Institute) (Aug. 6, 2019). Bayesians have been all-too-happy to throw shade at Fisher. See Eric-Jan Wagenmakers & Johnny van Doorn, “This Statement by Sir Ronald Fisher Will Shock You,” Bayesian Spectacles (July 2, 2020).

[10]      Daniel Cleather, “Is Statistics Racist?Medium (Mar. 9, 2020).

[11]      Aristotle, Politics, 1254b16–21.

[12]      James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law 15 & n. 39 (2017); Stephen H. Norwood, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower 56-57 (2009); Peter Rees, “Nathan Roscoe Pound and the Nazis,”  60 Boston Coll. L. Rev. 1313 (2019); Ron Grossman, “Harvard accused of coddling Nazis,” Chicago Tribune (Nov. 30, 2004).

[13]      Garrett W. O’Brien, “The Hidden History of the Harvard Law School Library’s Treasure Room,” The Crimson (Mar. 28, 2020).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.