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R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 1 February 2, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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R. A. Fisher in 1924

For a paper Chris Donohue and I have been working on, I have been delving into the historiography on statistician and genetic theorist R. A. Fisher (1890-1962). The main thing I was trying to do was to make sense of the last third of Fisher’s touchstone book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), which is a protracted eugenic explanation for why civilizations decline.  When I first got onto this topic, I consulted Greg Radick about it, and he directed me to Stephen Jay Gould’s 1991 essay, “The Smoking Gun of Eugenics” (reprinted in Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack collection), in which Gould takes apart both Fisher’s civilizational theory as well as his 1950s-era arguments against claims that smoking leads to cancer.

If you’re interested in the specifics of Fisher’s arguments, do read Gould’s essay, or, better still, read the original.  Suffice it here to say that Gould claims Fisher made bogus arguments on account of his commitment to eugenics (with a similar story for smoking). This is true, as far as it goes, but I wanted to find a “higher-order” explanation for Fisher’s civilizational theory, which would account for why he thought his arguments made sense.  Fisher, after all, was a famous proponent of methodological rigor, and even prima facie his arguments about civilizational decline were, shall we say, less than rigorous.

If you’re interested in my take, you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the edited volume our essay will be in to come out (hooray for academic publishing; if you’re really interested, please do contact me for a draft copy).  But the general approach I took was to delve into Fisher’s ideas about scientific methodology.  Below the fold I take a meandering tour through these ideas, and the scattered historiography on them.