Fisher and Neyman after anger management?

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Monday is Fisher’s birthday, and to set the stage for some items to appear, I’m posing the anger management question from a year ago post (please also see the comments from then). Here it is:


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 (but see “add on”). 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 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]

“add on”: From the earlier discussion, I realized a needed qualification:the answer would have to depend on whether your ideas on the subject were substantially different from the colleague’s. For instance if Neyman were being asked by Lindley, it would be very different.

[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

Categories: phil/history of stat, Statistics | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Fisher and Neyman after anger management?

  1. This story does not reflect well on Fisher but there are two grounds for caution. First, what we know is what we know from Neyman’s side and second a key issue is, as mentioned above, that it took place after Neyman had criticised Fisher in public.

    The paper(1) referred to above was read to the Royal Statistical Society in March 1935 and included, amongst other matters, a ‘correction’ of Fisher’s approach to analysing Latin Squares. Given that Fisher was an older colleague at the same institution (UCL) as Neyman and given that Fisher was renowned not just for his theoretical advances in statistics but for his practical collaboration in agricultural research, it was unwise and impolite of Neyman to ‘correct’ Fisher in a paper entitled ‘Statistical problems in agricultural research’, in particular, since, Neyman was wrong.

    Those who disagree with this assessment might like to consider that Wilks, only two years earlier, considered he had provided the rigorous proof of Fisher’s approach that he felt it had lacked,, a point to which Fisher himself alluded in the discussion of Neyman’s paper (2). (See ‘Added values’ (3)for an account.)

    Prior to Neyman’s read paper I think Fisher’s relationship with Neyman were cordial and, indeed, there is some evidence that he initially welcomed what Neyman and Person were doing. After the read paper their relationship broke down irretrievably.

    Declaration of interest
    I am the secretary of the Fisher Memorial Trust

    References
    1. Neyman J. Statistical problems in agricultural experimentation. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Supplement 1935; 2: 107-154.
    2. Fisher RA. Contribution to a discussion of J. Neyman’s paper on statistical problems in agricultural experimentation. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Supplement 1935; 2: 154-157.
    3. Senn SJ. Added Values: Controversies concerning randomization and additivity in clinical trials. Statistics in Medicine 2004; 23: 3729-3753.

    • Stephen: Great to hear from you. Yes, the controversial example was discussed a few times here, e.g.,

      http://errorstatistics.com/2013/05/24/gelman-sides-w-neyman-over-fisher-in-relation-to-a-famous-blow-up/

      Gelman Sides with Neyman over Fisher in Relation to a Famous Blow-Up

      I agree totally that Fisher welcomed the developments of N-P until these professional-personality frictions. Those who read into their subsequent name-calling some deep disagreement in their statistical accounts are mistaken. That’s one of the main reasons for this reblog.
      However, how would you have handled the Fisher request if you’d been Nayman?
      And what do you get to do as Secretary of the fisher Memorial Trust?

  2. I think that Fisher’s request to Neyman was unreasonable. I think, however, that Neyman should have discussed his criticism with Fisher before presenting it to the RSS. Had he done so, things might have turned out differently. It is possible that Neyman then would have realised that he was testing a different hypothesis. Then (but this is pure counterfactual speculation) he could have pointed out that Fisher’s test was a perfectly valid test of the point null and discuused whether there was any interest in testing a different null hypothesis etc. The path he chose left neither man any position to retreat but it is still my opinion that Fisher’s null was more reasonable although, actually, estimation is probably more interesting than testing.

    Still, it is curious that Fisher’s proof was impugned by two mathematically minded statisticians: one who felt the conclusion was wrong (Neyman) and another who considered the conclusion was right but the proof inadequate (Wilks). It seems that Cochrane eventually persuaded Wilks that Fisher’s proof was correct.

    • Stephen: Maybe he had discussed his criticism and Fisher disagreed. So Fisher was ready to jump on him when he gave the paper.

  3. visitor

    I’d have done the same as Neyman, making the break complete. If you start down the road of fawning, it never ends. Invite Fisher to give a lecture, and go right back to your own style.

  4. john byrd

    Poor students…

    • John: why?

      • john byrd

        Poor students because they were deprived of the opportunity to learn from Fisher and Neyman in same classroom. Plus, I suspect Neyman knew the importance of Fishers 1925 book, but did not want to use it anyway. Does not appear he was thinking of them. Appears his focus was what a jerk Fisher was.

  5. john byrd

    Poor students because Neyman did not wish to use Fisher’s classic book. He must have known by this time the importance of the book. So, the students should not have been deprived of a local opportunity even if Fisher was a jerk. I think students often suffer from the personality quirks of the professors.

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