out-standing scientist

I noticed quite recently that the [Nature] journal Heredity [managed by the Genetics Society] had published an historical / opinion piece on Ronald Fisher and his views on eugenics and race. The authors are all trustees of the Fisher Memorial Trust. The core of the paper contents was also contained in [one of the authors] Stephen Senn’s talk at the JSM round table (I also took part in) and later at the RSS. This is mostly an attempt at resetting Fisher’s position within the era when he lived, in terms of prevalent racism, nationalism, and imperialism. At the core of these woes was a generalised belief in the superiority of some nations, creeds, human groups, even social classes, over others, that was used as a justification in the tragedies of large scale colonialism, the first World War, systemic racism, Nazism, and widespread forced sterilisations….

More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning  track or stopped short of the right.”  R.A. Fisher (1959)

While I am thinking the authors are somewhat stretching the arguments isolating Ronald from the worst manifestations of eugenism and racism, as the concept of “voluntary sterilisation” is more than debatable when applied to patients with limited intellectual abilities, as Fisher considered (in 1943) that the Nazi racial laws “have been successful with the best type of German” (which stands as a fairly stupid statement on so many levels, starting with the one that this racial selection had only started a few years before!) and “that the Party sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock” (in 1948), my already made point is rather that the general tendency of turning genii into saints is bound to meet with disappointment. (Hence, if we have to stick with them, named lectures, prizes, memorials, &tc., should come with an expiration date!)

One Response to “out-standing scientist”

  1. I heartily agree. And, as unpopular as my choice was, I resigned from the Boston Chapter of the American Statistical Association because they did not, in my opinion, take a firm enough position against Fisher and ilk at the time. Of course, I continue to be a fervid member of the American Statistical Association and its Bayesian and Environmental sections as well as, of course, the ISBA.

    I agree this kind of thing can be taken too far, but, again in my personal opinion, we are a long way from that threshold.

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