What do we do with the science of terrible men?

What’s your favourite Ronald Fisher paper? Before you answer, you should know: Fisher, a British statistician and geneticist, served on the Committee for Legalising Eugenic Sterilisation, and advocated for the involuntary sterilisation of the ‘feeble-minded’. In 1948, he wrote a letter of support for a German colleague, Otmar von Verschuer, a Nazi scientist who received human body parts from twins murdered by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. It’s clear from the letter that the atrocities of the Nazi regime hadn’t dampened Fisher’s enthusiasm for eugenics:


Sir Ronald Fisher is the founder of modern statistics. He created many of the basic methods, or they were named in his honor (F-test, Fisher’s exact text, Fisher transformation). We can’t undo the past, but we can remember the mistakes and try not to repeat them.

In a Woody Allen film, Woody presents himself as a character who we are urged to sympathize with. Somehow that’s a different case from scientific results. Isaac Newton was a fairly miserable personality who did some rotten things. Should that affect whether we use Newton’s laws? When the bridge we build without using Newton’s laws collapses, will the relatives of the victims be comforted by the fact that we were horrified by what a terrible person Newton was?


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