Here is part of my response to a criticism of one of my articles in Significance (Fisher’s Random Idea). The objection made was that I was wrong to refer to Fisher’s involvement with eugenics as a shameful episode, and that the only truly shameful thing was the failure of academics to defend Fisher’s reputation. The criticism was withdrawn and so my response was never published.

Fisher was unambiguous in his pronouncements on race. When, in the early 1950s, the first and second of a series of UNESCO statements on ‘The Race Question’ were drawn up to expose the absence of science in scientific racism and debunk the idea of race as a biological concept, Fisher opposed their position, arguing that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development”.[1]

The scientists and academics who collaborated on the UNESCO statements were also clear: “race hatred and conflict thrive on scientifically false ideas” and, as the painfully recent example of the war and the holocaust showed too well, such ideas had terrible consequences.

Scientists, then as now, must subject their beliefs, and the concepts that frame them, to a degree of scepticism that is proportionate to the consequences of those beliefs. When it comes to biological determinism these consequences are potentially so dire that this scepticism must be unrelenting. Fisher either did not fully appreciate this burden or he lacked the scientific humility needed to expose his own prejudices. He claimed in his statement to UNESCO that ‘[a]vailable scientific knowledge provides a firm basis’ for his beliefs and that racial groups ‘differ undoubtedly in a very large number of their genes.’ (My italics). This is not the language of person who is entertaining doubts.

… There is nothing revisionist about acknowledging that Fisher was at once a great statistician and a flawed person with deplorable views. It is just a more accurate view of history. Hero worship, on the other hand, is dangerous since we miss an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

[1] UNESCO, 1952, The Race concept: results of an inquiry’. Paris: UNESCO.