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 …