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Weekend read – Fisher’s flawed foundations of statistics

Summary:
From Asad Zaman This lecture is about the personality of Sr Ronald Fisher and his foundational ideas about statistics. The idea that statistics is all about “data reduction” is due to lack of computational capabilities at the time of Fisher – it was not possible to analyze 1000’s of data points, without reducing them to manageable summaries. Even though computer capabilities now make this possible, intellectual inertia has kept the discipline of statistics bound to the now obsolete mold into which it was cast by Fisher. Fisher was a prominent Eugenicist, and he had six children in accordance with his belief that the path to improvement of the human race involved increasing the propagation of superior specimens of humanity. A central question for us is:  “Is modern statistics FREE of

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from Asad Zaman

This lecture is about the personality of Sr Ronald Fisher and his foundational ideas about statistics. The idea that statistics is all about “data reduction” is due to lack of computational capabilities at the time of Fisher – it was not possible to analyze 1000’s of data points, without reducing them to manageable summaries. Even though computer capabilities now make this possible, intellectual inertia has kept the discipline of statistics bound to the now obsolete mold into which it was cast by Fisher.

Fisher was a prominent Eugenicist, and he had six children in accordance with his belief that the path to improvement of the human race involved increasing the propagation of superior specimens of humanity. A central question for us is:  “Is modern statistics FREE of its Eugenicist origins?”. The minority position is NO. This position is described and well defended by Donald Mackenzie in his book: “Statistics in Britain,1865 to 1930:The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge”. He writes that “Connections between eugenics and statistics can be seen both at the organisation level and at the deiailed level of the mathematics of regression and association discussed in chapters 3 and 7. Without eugenics, statistical theory would not have developed in the way it did in Britain – and indeed might not have developed at all, at least till much later.” In brief, Eugenics shaped the tools and techniques developed in statistics. However, the Dominant View is that Moderns Statistics is FREE of its racist origins. This view is ably defended by Louçã, Francisco in his article on “Emancipation Through Interaction–How Eugenics and Statistics Converged and Diverged.” Journal of the History of Biology 42.4 (2009): 649-684. He argues in favor of the Consensus View: There is no doubt that origins of statistics are due to Eugenics project, but it has now broken free of these dark origins.

In this part of the lecture, we look at the personality of Fisher, and assess how it shaped the foundations of statistics. It is acknowledged by all that Fisher cantankerous, proud & obstinate. He would never admit to mistake, and was stubborn in defending his position, even against facts. He was also vengeful: To oppose Fisher was to turn him into a permanent enemy. In many battles, Fisher took the wrong side. HOWEVER, he won most of his battles because of his brilliance, to the detriment of truth. The impact of Fisher’s victories has permanently scarred statistics, and continue to guide the field in the wrong directions. This lecture is about SOME (not all) of his fundamental mistakes.

Perhaps the most basic, and also the most confusing, was the battle between Fisher and  Pearson regarding the testing of Statistical Hypothesis. This is confusing because today both of the two conflicting positions are taught to students of statistics simultaneously. Even though the conflict was never resolved, it is now ignored and glossed over, buried under the carpet. The Fundamental Question is “WHAT is a hypothesis about the data?”. According to Fisher, . . . read more

Asad Zaman
Physician executive. All opinions are my personal. It is okay for me to be confused as I’m learning every day. Judge me and be confused as well.

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