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 (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 (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]
“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
This is a good, thought-provoking post in a couple of ways.
First, what would I actually have done? I suspect that I would have agreed to use his book–Fisher has a bad reputation for bullying and I’m pretty sure that he would have intimidated me–but I would certainly have made editorial comments during the lectures to make clear to the students that there is more than one way to think about the material. I don’t know about UC back then, but nowadays at my university the probability of a senior colleague being present at any of my lectures is close to zero.
Second, and this may be the main point of the post, it illustrates the contingent aspects of development of ideas and theories. If the main characters had been better behaved then we would almost certainly be in a different world. The K Pearson/Fisher/Neyman/E Pearson story is a ripper, and it deserves to be more often presented in statistics textbooks. God knows that the topic is widely regarded as dry and uninspiring, so an injection of drama would help.
Michael: Thanks for the thoughtful response. Let me start with your second point because actually I was contemplating writing a Saturday night “statistical theater of the absurd” in which Fisher and Neyman run into each other in the Elysian Fields or wherever and begin to admit the absurdity of some of their polemics. Fisher would admit that while Neyman was behavioristic in theory, he (Fisher) was actually more behavioristic in practice, etc. etc. and they’d have a great big laugh over the extreme catcalls and sparring over the years. Surely they must have known (deep down) that they were exaggerating their differences to a laughable extent often. I mean, to write “The Silver Jubilee of my Disagreement with Fisher”—give me a break! (Let me be clear that, unlike my colleague Aris Spanos, I’m no historian of statistics.) Anyway,I think a theatrical production would work better than a textbook write-up. I knew that while it would be fun to write such a thing, it would take me away from my book which has to be completed soon. I will say something on your first point in a separate comment.
Michael: I like your suggestion for how you might handle the situation, and it is the route I’d be tempted to take—in Neyman’s shoes. But this made me realize an equivocal aspect to my post. The 1935 book episode came up in talking to Aris Spanos yesterday, so I had the idea to put it in a post, but I tossed in the queries (what would you do?) only as I was writing. I think 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. Throughout my career, a great many inducements for conversions were thrown my way, but I always felt that I had to develop my own philosophy of science and philosophy of statistics. (When I came to Virginia Tech, I.J. Good urged me to be a “Doogian”, which seemed murky enough, but later he (often) said he was quite let down that I never went that route.) So that kind of case is different, and I take it your answer reflected Neyman’s situation , as I intended. I mean Neyman had been building/formalizing Fisher’s basic ideas at that stage….
Maybe a solution would be to invite the senior colleague to present a lecture or two?