A rant

When the Great Helmsman died in 1976, Jung Chang was able to put on a convincing display of abandoned grief. But afterwards, she decided to think through Mao’s philosophy, and how he had been able to exert such control. She decided that he had been a “restless fight promoter”, who understood and exploited the ugly side of human instincts such as envy and resentment, and used them together with the ignorance of his followers to eliminate possible challengers.

The Chairman might have been interested to know that this process has now been automated. The Internet and the World Wide Web, inventions which huge potential for good, can be exploited in much the same way. Start a rumour on social media, and there will be people who believe it without checking, and are ready to take up aggressive stances for the cause.

Take BLM, for example. This is absolutely necessary and vitally important; our society is shamefully riven with racism, and black people find themselves on the end of it on a daily basis. So the movement has become a vital force for change.

But it can be used for more sinister motives. Cancel culture has a good side; it is surely wrong that someone who made a fortune trading other humans with scant respect for their lives should be memorialised, even if he donated some of this fortune to the good of his city.

But this is a convenient weapon for taking down your enemies, even if they are not here to speak for themselves. It would be a shame if the whole movement were to be tainted by such activity.

This brings me to my real topic, the statistician and geneticist R. A. Fisher.

Earlier this year, Fisher was denounced as a racist by a historian, who was so on top of her subject that she could actually claim that Fisher invented Latin squares. The movement was taken up by others, the walls of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge were defaced, and the governing body of the College yielded to popular pressure and removed the stained glass window in their dining hall in which Fisher is commemorated by a Latin square. (I will say more about this in a moment.) In any case, I am a member of the College, having been admitted during my tenure of a G. C. Steward fellowship there in 2008, so I feel entitled to put my head above the parapet.

The complaint against Fisher is that be belonged to (and was for a time the president of) the University of Cambridge Eugenics Society. This proves he was a racist, right? Well no, actually, if you look a little closer.

Eugenics was in its origin a plan to use genetic information to “improve” the human stock, as humans have been doing to other life forms for many millennia. If you have ever had genetic counselling, or have employed embryo testing, then you could be said to be making use of eugenics.

Of course, what constitutes an improvement is not entirely clear, and a lot hinges on the interpretation of this. There is no doubt that, in the first half of the twentieth century, eugenics meant different things to different people. In Germany and the USA, it was enmeshed with racism from quite early on. (Read about David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford, to see the extent to which this was true.)

But in Britain, as always, class was the most important determining factor; the Eugenic Society was mainly populated by people from the middle classes who were uneasy about the rise of the lower classes. It encouraged the middle classes to have more children. The wider attitude persisted. In a book of commentary on the Sokal hoax, published by the editors of Lingua Franca, the Introduction gives a brief account of the field of Cultural Studies, and we read, “The discipline’s first institutional incarnation was the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, a postgraduate research institute established in 1964 at the University of Birmingham in England. […] American cultural studies is often said to be characterized by a movement away from the Birmingham school’s emphasis on social class towards other aspects of identity, such as race and gender […]”.

For Fisher, a particular point at issue was intelligence. He regarded himself (correctly) as intelligent, and so (more dubiously) felt it his duty to have many children himself. He was not a person who found it easy to change his opinions or admit his mistakes. But he did leave the Eugenics Society. I have no hard evidence for this, but I suspect there were two reasons: first, his own research in genetics and that of others was showing that “things were not so simple”; and second, when the society appeared to be moving from discussion to action, he felt he could not be part of it.

As hinted above, nobody regarded Fisher as an easy-going or pleasant colleage. But that is not the same as being a racist; students from Africa and India, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, seem to feel affection for him and what he contributed to the discipline and to their careers. (Read Walter Bodmer’s account here.) And that he was a great scientist there is no doubt. Sticking to statistics (since I know little about genetics), his principles for experimental design and analysis, notably his insistence on randomization, replication, and blocking, have enormously improved the accuracy of experimental results, which have given us better agricultural practices (and so more food to feed the world) and better drugs (because of randomized clinical trials). It would not be easy to count the number of lives saved as a result.

So I will not be removing Fisher’s inequality from my teaching material any time soon.

On Latin squares: The window in Caius was based on the cover of his book The Design of Experiments. It appeared on every one of the many editions the book went through. Nobody knows where it came from. It seems it does not occur anywhere in Fisher’s works, and it has been suggested that someone at the publisher, who knew what a Latin square is, sat down and produced one essentially at random. This is reinforced by the fact that on the cover of one edition (the sixth, I think), it was printed upside down.

And if you don’t know who did invent Latin squares, Wikipedia has this to say: “The Korean mathematician Choi Seok-jeong was the first to publish an example of Latin squares of order nine, in order to construct a magic square in 1700, predating Leonhard Euler by 67 years.” (Euler was also constructing magic squares when he came up with the idea.)

In conclusion, a remark. If you visit St Andrews, walk along Lade Braes. You will find that a number of citizens of the town are commemorated by trees, marked with plaques at ground level. The plaques are quite unobtrusive, and hopefully not upsetting to anyone who found that person’s views offensive. Also, one presumes that by the time the trees die, those who remember the person commemorated will also have gone, so the fame will be no more permanent than it should be. Moreover, if some future movement demanded that such monuments would fall, and people showed up to chop down a tree and throw it into the river, it should not be hard to recognise them as vandals. This is a solution that might be more widely adopted …

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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10 Responses to A rant

  1. Jake says:

    I did some minimal googling and didn’t find any reports of somebody claiming Fisher invented (vs something like “promoted”) latin squares, but I did find a quote of him saying “sorry there is propaganda in favour of miscegenation in North America”. Furthermore wiki claims he said the Nazis “sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives” and that he would give “his support to such a movement”. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Fisher#Eugenics)

    • I have read the Wikipedia article, yes, although I have not checked the sources. I am not trying to start a big debate; in any case I certainly don’t feel competent to judge Fisher. Let me just make two brief points.
      First, I am rather in favour of judging a person in their entirety rather than based on a couple of public utterances. I don’t think there is really comparability between someone who successfully mentored people from various races and parts of the world and someone who made big profits from dealing in human misery.
      Second, my understanding is that back then it was thought that there would be significant genetic differences between races; if that were so, it would be quite natural that different races would have different strengths and weaknesses. In fact it turned out differently; the systematic differences are very small indeed, and are swamped by individual differences. This understanding happened because the science was done. I don’t think you can criticise someone’s opinions as long as they are prepared to apply the scientific method to test them. The people who are reprehensible are the ones to whom “science” is subservient to ideology or prejudice.

      • Saul says:

        I think a key point here is that the belief that people of certain races (or classes, etc.) should be wiped out is not one that would be justified even if those genetic differences did exist.

        Also, many people contribute positively to the lives of individual people who belong to marginalised groups, while also contributing to the systemic marginalisation and oppression of those groups. I think that it is entirely reasonable that the people who are still experiencing the effects of such oppression do not want to have to think about (and, by proxy, celebrate) one of its proponents every time they sit down for a meal.

  2. Josh Paik says:

    Well even if Fisher was a racist or sexist or brute, (this is a nuanced issue and I see both sides), I do not support the cancellation of Fisher. Mathematicians and statisticians have historically at least tried to separate the man or woman from their work. The canonical example here is of course Teichmuller, but I can think of other racist or sexist or worse mathematicians of lesser fame whose theorems are still used. This is the liberating thing about math. Ideally (ok, sexism and racism do exist), regardless of gender and race or background, your merit as a scientist is ultimately about the strength of your results. If you have an achievement worth celebrating, and Fisher has many, they should still be celebrated.

  3. For a much more careful and detailed account of Fisher’s works and view, including quoting a characterisation of him as an “antiracist conservative”, see this document.

  4. An article by members of the Fisher Memorial Trust has just been published in the journal Heredity. Although the published version clearly says “This article is published with open access”, the Scroogean publisher attempted to charge me to read it, and I was only able to do so by logging in through the University.
    But I think it is worth the effort of getting hold of and reading.

  5. Tim Penttila says:

    Lancelot Hogben knew Fisher well, and campaigned against the science of eugenics, for example in his 1932 book Genetic principles in medicine and social science. Amongst his papers in Birmingham is the following piece, cut from his work Scientific Humanist: An unauthorized
    autobiography:
    “To some extent in Sweden, with its by no means few Nazi sympathizers among the professional élite, and more so in Britain where the Eugenics Society was the spearhead of the intellectual fifth column, racialism of the Rosenberg genre was at that time a respectable creed. After the war, the Nuremberg justices of the peace had Rosenberg hanged. If I believed in hanging people for their opinions, the only extenuating circumstances I might enter with a clear conscience as a plan for mercy on behalf of the late Sir R.A. Fisher would be that he did not occupy a government post with responsibility for implementing his convictions. When the great purge of persons with Jewish antecedents began in the mid-thirties, the indecent hurry with which the leaders of the Eugenics Society clustered to talk their way through so agonising a reappraisal was an ever ready
    topic for merriment when Gunnar [Dahlberg] and I met.”
    It was cut as part of the unauthorized nature of the biography: the editors (his son and daughter-in-law) reshaped the material in his papers after Lancelot Hogben’s death.

    (See J Tabery, Looking back on Lancelot’s laughter: The Lancelot Thomas Hogben Papers,
    The Mendel Newsletter, No. 15 March 2006, American Philosophical Society, 10-17.)

    Hogben was known for his promotion of the interdependence of nature and nurture, and used
    that to oppose drawing eugenic conclusions from statistical data about the topic. See
    Tabery, J. (2008). “R. A. Fisher, Lancelot Hogben, and the origin(s) of genotype-environment interaction”. Journal of the History of Biology. 41 (4): 717–761, where it is said that Hogben
    ” attacked Britain’s eugenics movement with a tenacity unmatched even by the standards of other anti-eugenicists of his day”. Also:
    “In developing methods for assessing the relative importance of heredity and the environment as part of the biometric tradition, Fisher came to recognize the possible complications raised by the ‘’non-linear interaction of environment and heredity’ for the summing of variances, introducing the biometric concept of genotype–environment interaction”

    “Hogben, meanwhile, began by considering different sources of variability in a population – a standard problem for the developmental tradition of biology. In doing so, he recognized a third class of variability (distinct from genetic or environmental variability) that resulted from the combination of a particular genetic constitution with a particular kind of environment. This source of variation was responsible for cases of genotype– environment interactions and was, for Hogben, a result of development, thus introducing the developmental concept of genotype–environment interaction”

    “Fisher and Hogben’s separate routes to genotype–environment inter- action also led to disparate conclusions when it came to considering the importance of genotype–environment interaction. Dedicated to devel- oping methods for assessing the relative importance of heredity and the environment, Fisher took genotype–environment interaction merely to be a potential (but unproved) complication for his statistical techniques. Hogben, meanwhile, understood genotype–environment interaction to be of much more importance. Genotype–environment interactions were a feature of development and, as such, were to be expected in nature despite the fact that experimental embryologists were only beginning to discover them. ”

    As comments from the immediate post-war period, Hogben was not influenced by cancel culture,
    as his testimony is that of an eyewitness, although not as unbiased one. His politics were
    socialist, no doubt leading to further friction with the conservative Fisher. (He was included in
    Gary Werskey’s 1978 book The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of the 1930s, along with Joseph Needham, J.D.Bernal and J.B.S.Haldane.) Hogben also wrote a number of popular mathematics books: Mathematics for the Million (1936), Man must measure: the wonderful world of mathematics (1955) and Mathematics in the making (1960).

    One third of Fisher’s greatest work, the five concluding chapters in his 1930 book The genetical theory of natural selection, are devoted to an analysis of the ‘decay of civilizations’ and its prevention by raising the fertility of ‘more prosperous’ or ‘superior’ social groups. A fairly
    balanced view of his attitudes to eugenics appeas in Moore, James. “RA Fisher: a faith fit for eugenics.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38.1 (2007): 110-135.

  6. Tim Penttila says:

    I should add the reference Sauce, Bruno, and Louis D. Matzel. “The paradox of intelligence: Heritability and malleability coexist in hidden gene-environment interplay.” Psychological bulletin 144.1 (2018): 26-47 for what I said about genotype–environment interaction. A relevant quote from
    this is: “when estimating the heritability of IQ, those gene-environment correlations that we do not recognize or do not know will be attributed to the genetic component”. Commenting on this very quote in our context the novelist and poet Siri Hustvedt (a contributor to cancel culture?) said:
    This is exactly what the statistician Ronald Fisher did in the 1920s. He assigned leftovers to the genetic side of the equation. And he was criticized for it by the fervent anti-eugenicist Lancelot Hogben, who wrote in his book Nature and Nurture (1933): “There is a danger of concealing assumptions that have no factual basis behind an impressive façade of flawless algebra”.
    [Hustvedt, Siri. “Tear Them Down: Old Statues, Bad Science, and Ideas That Just Won’t Die.” Amerikastudien 66 (2021): 37-45.] Implicitly, if not explicitly, Hustvedt makes the point that leaving
    monuments in place for people who were influential in propagating ideas that had terrible effects
    on their societies aids those who want to continue propagating those ideas (or even some of the
    unpleasant deductions from those ideas, for instance, racism rather than eugenics).

    Until this point in my comments, I have hidden my opinions behind those of Hogben. Let me
    come out from behind that shield. In my opinion, if the monuments are to survive rather than be torn down, it would be a good thing if they inspired calm consideration of the downside of the negative qualities of those they commemorate (as well as of their positive achievements). It is a measure of progress that we have built upon Fisher’s work in statistics, mathematics and genetics; and it is equally a measure of progress that his views on eugenics are no longer acceptable in contemporary societies, and that we are more aware of the dangers of flawed reasoning using disguised assumptions in a model that Hogben was criticising in Fisher. That we are aware of such dangers doesn’t make it any easier to find such disguised assumptions, but mathematics and statistics will containue to be used to form real-world policy positions, and there is a pressing need for distinguishing fair criticisms of assumptions of a model from disagreement with such conclusions. Now let me hide behind Hogben again. Like Fisher he was both a Fellow of the Royal Society and a student at Cambridge (at Trinity College). If he were instead at Gonville and Caius, a monument to Hogben next to that for Fisher combined with a plaque mentioning their dispute over eugenics and
    over the gene-environment interplay would be an outcome that would please me.

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