Fisher and Neyman after anger management?

February 16, 2013
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(This article was originally published at Error Statistics Philosophy » Statistics, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

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Would you agree if your (senior) colleague urged you to use his/her book rather than your own –even if you thought doing so would change for the positive the entire history of your field? My guess is that the answer is no. For that matter, would you ever try to insist that your (junior) colleague use your book in teaching a course rather than his/her own notes or book?  Again I guess no. But perhaps you’d be more tactful than were Fisher and Neyman. It wasn’t just Fisher (whose birthday is tomorrow) who seemed to need some anger management training, Erich Lehmann (in conversation and in 2011) points to a number of incidences wherein Neyman is the instigator of gratuitous ill-will. Their substantive statistical and philosophical disagreements, I now think, were minuscule in comparison to the huge animosity that developed over many years. Here’s how Neyman describes a vivid recollection he has of the 1935 book episode to Constance Reid (1998, 126). [i]

A couple of months “after Neyman criticized Fisher’s concept of the complex experiment” Neyman vividly recollects  Fisher stopping by his office at University College on his way to a meeting which was to decide on Neyman’s reappointment[ii]:

“And he said to me that he and I are in the same building… . That, as I know, he has published a book—and that’s Statistical Methods for Research Workers—and he is upstairs from me so he knows something about my lectures—that from time to time I mention his ideas, this and that—and that this would be quite appropriate if I were not here in the College but, say, in California—but if I am going to be at University College, this this is not acceptable to him. And then I said, ‘Do you mean that if I am here, I should just lecture using your book?’ And then he gave an affirmative answer. And I said, ‘Sorry, no. I cannot promise that.’ And then he said, ‘Well, if so, then from now on I shall oppose you in all my capacities.’ And then he enumerated—member of the Royal Society and so forth. There were quite a few. Then he left. Banged the door.”

Imagine if Neyman had replied:

“I’d be very pleased to use Statistical Methods for Research Workers in my class, what else?”

Or what if Fisher had said:

 “Of course you’ll want to use your own notes in your class, but I hope you will use a portion of my text when mentioning some of its key ideas.”

Very unlikely [iii].

How would you have handled it?

Ironically, Neyman did something very similar to Erich Lehmann at Berkeley, and blocked his teaching graduate statistics after one attempt that may have veered slightly off Neyman’s path. But Lehmann always emphasized that, unlike Fisher, Neyman never created professional obstacles for him. [iv]

[i] At the meeting that followed this exchange, Fisher tried to shoot down Neyman’s reappointment, but did not succeed (Reid, 125).

[ii]This is Neyman’s narrative to Reid. I’m sure Fisher would relate these same episodes differently. Let me know if you have any historical material to add. I met Lehmann for the first time shortly after he had worked with Reid on her book, and he had lots of stories. I should have written them all down at the time.

[iii] I find it hard to believe, however, that Fisher would have thrown some of Neyman’s wooden models onto the floor:

“ After the Royal Statistical Society meeting of March 28, relations between workers on the two floors of K.P.’s old preserve became openly hostile. One evening, late that spring, Neyman and Pearson returned to their department after dinner to do some work. Entering they were startled to find strewn on the floor the wooden models which Neyman had used to illustrate his talk on the relative advantages of randomized blocks and Latin squares. They were regularly kept in a cupboard in the laboratory. Both Neyman and Pearson always believed that the models were removed by Fisher in a fit anger.” (Reid 124, noted in Lehmann 2011, p. 59. K.P. is, of course, Karl Pearson.)

[iv] I didn’t want to relate this anecdote without a citation, and finally found one in Reid (215-16). Actually I would have anyway, since Lehmann separately told it to Spanos and me.

Lehmann, E. (2011). Fisher, Neyman and the Creation of Classical Statistics, Springer.

Reid, C (1998), Neyman., Springer


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