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  • 1.  Troubled by the hasty decision to rename the Fisher Award

    Posted 06-19-2020 19:56

    I am struggling to understand the ASA's decision to recommend renaming the R.A Fisher Award and Lectureship, and am discomfited by the process by which the decision was made.  Of course the ASA must be welcoming to statisticians of all backgrounds. I understand the desire to make a timely cathartic statement against racist police brutality. But removing someone's name from a long held place of honor should not be done hastily. I could be supportive if a substantive case were made for the insinuation that Fisher was racist. That case has not yet been made.

    The underlying rationale is that Fisher was a eugenicist, and as summarized in COPPS' feedback form "Historically, eugenics has been associated with racism and oppression". After a mere week or so of online appeals, ASA leadership decided to recommend the name change without further explanation. As we statisticians know well, associations alone are weak evidence. I have not yet seen any recounting of Fisher's specific transgressions beyond his affiliation with "eugenics".  I do not defend eugenics, but it is intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that eugenics encompassed multiple concepts which were not inherently racist. The movement claimed many academic and prominent adherents who are still widely revered for their many enduring contributions, yet are not generally considered to be racist. More on eugenics below.

    I have no personal connection to Fisher and don't claim to know enough about him to defend him. Nor have I heard enough yet to specifically condemn him.  I do have broader concerns for our statistical community about this process which go beyond the question of Fisher's legacy. (1) Removing the name of any award or other recognition, our equivalent of tearing down a statue, is hurtful to the target's surviving family, friends,  and collaborators. It is also harmful to the previous award winners -- if the decision is based solely on long-known information, it would reflect negatively on past recipients for accepting an award named after someone who was purportedly well known to be indecent.  The case has not yet been made to justify such humiliations here. Any name removal should be preceded by careful deliberation and thoroughly argued justification. (2)  We also know as statisticians that a social media campaign is not an unbiased probabilistic sample of community sentiment.  Piling on to an inflammatory collective accusation such as "racism" requires little effort. Participating in a righteously indignant protest can be emotionally satisfying, is socially rewarded, and is without the burden of accountability. Correctly refuting a facile claim demands more time and research than echoing a slogan into an online petition.  Even questioning an inflamed mob is socially riskier than joining the mob. It should be unsurprising that there have been many more voices denouncing Fisher than asking for serious deliberation.  But even when there is some justice in the protesters' demands, the ASA leadership owes its entire membership a thoughtful consideration of the grievances before taking an important decision. Granting instant gratification to a thinly substantiated Internet campaign with a prompt concession and negligible explanation can only encourage future online frenzies leading to ill-considered outcomes. (3) The ASA's effective embrace of proscriptions on ideas expressed by community members, especially when the boundaries are indeterminately stated, can only have a chilling effect on scientific inquiry. And it leaves every one of us even more vulnerable to loss of advancement opportunities for daring to express opinions or investigate scientific questions that are novel or out of favor in certain circles.

    As to eugenics. Certainly, some ideas from that movement were eventually used to justify atrocities, such as forced sterilizations and genocide. But I am unable to find any indication that Fisher himself was remotely sympathetic to such depravities, or otherwise "associated with racism and oppression". Other 20th century luminaries who promoted eugenic ideas included Helen Keller, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell.  I don't believe that any of them are generally considered to be a racist. There are practices that are widely embraced today (including I assume by many in this community) that are incontrovertibly eugenic in origin, but which are no longer commonly labeled eugenic. Pre-natal genetic screening, with termination of a pregnancy if abnormalities are discovered, is undeniably eugenicist. The promotion of voluntary birth control and the Planned Parenthood organization have eugenicist roots. See Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger's essay "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda"

    Also see NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois' essay "Negroes and Birth Control", where he argues for birth control, lamenting the number of black births "from that part of the population least intelligent and fit". The wording is antiquated and wouldn't be used in polite society today. But the opinion is undeniably eugenicist, and the advocacy for birth control reverberates in the NAACP's links with Planned Parenthood to this day. It would be ludicrous to associate DuBois or those organizations with racism and oppression.

    So where on the spectrum of eugenics was Fisher? Which specific eugenic ideas did he promote? What actions did he take to implement those ideas? If he was a racist, how did he manifest those beliefs? The discussion that I have seen regarding the Lecture has not been informative on these questions. Fisher's Wikipedia entry (this issue was sparked, apparently, by the observation that "eugenicist" is at the top of that entry) states without elaboration that he "held strong views on race". I find there only a couple of quotes related to race, and which do not contain the word "race". None are more specific than asserting generally that there is between-group hereditary variation on both physiological traits as well as "capacities of the mind" across "groups of mankind". If formulated more precisely, that could be a testable scientific proposition. Scientific questions of this type have undoubtedly been explored.  I am not knowledgeable about research in this area, but perhaps Fisher's broad statement has been refuted in its entirety in the 70 or so years since he wrote those comments, or perhaps it has been validated in specific cases. Were his quotes deliberate falsifications of then known results in order to advance an oppressive agenda? Or were they consistent with the language and state of knowledge of his day?  Fisher presumably understood enough to avoid the ecological fallacy, so should not have assumed that person A of group X had a lower score on some measure than person B of group Y even if the mean of X was lower than the mean of Y. Is there any evidence that he treated, or advocated treating, individuals of different groups differently based on group differences? I have not heard of any.

    The ASA's rash issuance of a recommendation to remove Fisher's name was disappointing and unhelpful to our community. If there is more detail than has as yet been discussed to support the implication that Fisher held views and took actions that would damage our community by continuing to have his name attached to this award, then that information needs to be presented.  I hope the leadership of ASA and peer societies will deliberate on the future of the Fisher Lecture carefully, in due time and would adequately substantiate any accusations of Fisher's ruinous failings.

    Finally, if COPSS does ultimately remove Fisher's name from the honor, the Lecture should either be discontinued altogether or simply named the COPSS Lecture, not named after any other individual. Renaming this Lecture after someone else would imply that the new eponym was merely a backup choice. There is a proposal to name the award after David Blackwell. Dr. Blackwell was an outstanding statistician with an impressive life story. His legacy merits a substantial honor that is originated under his own name, unlinked to any controversy.

    Stefan Sharkansky, PhD
    Useful Work, Inc.

  • 2.  RE: Troubled by the hasty decision to rename the Fisher Award

    Posted 06-22-2020 08:30
    I agree entirely. As a non native English speaker I felt embarrassed to try.

    It is a shame that ASA leadership is being carried away by "politically correct" and mob pressure. I would expect ASA be more democratic... and stable. Most people signing the petition probably never heard of Fisher's work.

    Interesting enough, Fisher's work and achievement can be the subject of study by all of us. (Well, we are statisticians. Lots of what we learned and struggled to learn in graduate school came from Fisher). Even his personal life may be of interest. Who among us are sufficiently educated and informed to tackle such a question? 

    As said, I beg ASA leadership to pounder any decision.

    Jose Carvalho
    Statistika Consultoria

  • 3.  RE: Troubled by the hasty decision to rename the Fisher Award

    Posted 06-23-2020 02:31
    I agree that the decision to recommend renaming the Fisher Lectureship has been rushed, it has the appearance of capitulating to a Twitter mob. No doubt, more people would be comfortable with the decision if it resulted from a longer deliberative process. I don't necessarily disagree with the recommendation, but I can't help but feel that Fisher has been accused and found guilty without due process -- condemned by a quote on Wikipedia without anyone fully understanding his views.

    Stanley E. Lazic, PhD

  • 4.  RE: Troubled by the hasty decision to rename the Fisher Award

    Posted 06-24-2020 22:53
    Viewed one way, the decision to remove Fisher's name was quick.  But, from the perspective of the history of both conscious agents of racial oppression and the social history of those who without critical awareness cooperate with racial oppression more or less because it is part of a dominant culture, it has taken a very long time.  It is quite wonderful that there is an opening now and a sense of change.  It is not just that theories of racial natures contradict the whole spirit of learning and openness required for the growth of knowledge - but these things were also wrong throughout history.  For example, it was wrong then for Fisher to visit with the Klan when he came to the states.

    It is true that some of those in the discussion do not have statistical training - but this is just to say that the discussion is open and on the dimensions of social justice and what kind of a future we want - collectively - to create all voices are equal.  This is progress towards a better world and a more welcoming learning environment for students.  Nothing is hurt and much is improved when we pull down statues of confederate generals and American slaveholders and colonialists from our streets and parks, and when universities and learned societies cease honoring bright leaders in methodology and technique who also promoted the the social construct of racial natures without regard for the centuries of oppression that racist and colonialist actions cause.  The contributions to method and technique are unaffected - they are still of central importance, but we need to face forward and work towards a society of continual learning, openness and welcoming. 

    One thing about the American Statistical Association - from its beginnings it has always been open to people with an interest in statistics, meaning all people including those who work with statistics in some way in government and applied settings.  This change continues the tradition of welcoming and openness.

    Hugh Peach
    H. Gil Peach & Associates, LLC

  • 5.  RE: Troubled by the hasty decision to rename the Fisher Award

    Posted 06-25-2020 14:51

    I challenge Hugh's unsourced claim that "Fisher [visited] with the Klan when he came to the states". If true, that would be astonishing. But I can't find it mentioned anyplace else. Where is this documented?

    Stefan Sharkansky, PhD
    Useful Work, Inc.

  • 6.  RE: Troubled by the hasty decision to rename the Fisher Award

    Posted 06-25-2020 15:33
    I also would appreciate a reference since I have not been able to find information on such a meeting. (The search is complicated by the fact that there was an American economist named Irving Fisher who was also a eugenicist.)

    Robert O'Brien

  • 7.  RE: Troubled by the hasty decision to rename the Fisher Award

    Posted 06-28-2020 14:47
    I was going to agree with those who felt that the decision to rename the Fisher Award was hasty and unwarranted.  I felt that the comments in favor of renaming were simply criticisms of eugenics and particularly its more loathsome applications, but that no one had shown Fisher himself to have held any specific objectionable beliefs.

    However, it did not take much searching to find one.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, UNESCO attempted to put together a scientific statement opposing racism, declaring "race" to be a social myth rather than a biological fact.  Fisher objected to this claim, and argued that
        evidence and everyday experience showed that human groups differ profoundly "in their innate capacity for intellectual 
        and emotional development" and concluded 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". (Wikipedia, The Race Question)

    According to a 2007 review of the controversy by Michelle Brattain (, Fisher stated that  
       scientific knowledge provides a 
    firm basis [rather than "no basis"] for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their
       innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development." Direct evidence for this claim did not exist, but it was not
       needed, Fisher suggested, given that one could assume that "such groups do differ undoubtedly in a very large number of
       their genes."

    I'm not happy to have to report this.

    Jay Beder
    Dept. of Mathematical Sciences
    University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee