R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)

We either love it or hate it.  But either way, we have to admit that statistics is one of the most powerful tools for conservation and environmental science.  The foundation of statistics as we know it today comes largely from the incredible brain of Sir Ronald Aylmer Fischer, born on February 17, 1890 (died 1962).

Fischer was born in London and educated at Cambridge.  He studied physics and biology, but plagued by terrible eyesight, he decided that mathematics was the way he could serve the biological sciences best.  He was such a brilliant mathematician that he generally just read a problem and produced the right answer, much to the displeasure of his teachers. After graduating, he worked for several years as a school teacher, a job he disliked but paid for his daily needs.  While teaching, he published a paper that unified the ideas of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, showing how genetic variation in populations produced the basis for natural selection.

He began working at the Rothamsted Experiment Station in 1920, performing statistical analysis of agricultural experiments.  This is where and when his contributions as a statistician took off.  He developed the basics of experimental design, famously saying that “To consult the statistician after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.”  (and that is why we always have to consult a statistician before we conduct an experiment today!)

He developed  many of the concepts still used in today’s statistical analyses.  He invented analysis of variance, the tool that lets multiple factors be tested in a single experiment.  He also set the standard probability of error at 0.05, still considered the level of certainty needed to accept the results of an experiment.  He wrote several textbooks that became the foundation of modern statistical theory and practice.  Because of his understanding of the variations in populations, he is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of population genetics.

The importance of Fischer’s approach to statistical analysis is profound for conservation.  While statistics is not really needed in physical sciences (gravity always acts the same way), it is in biological sciences because living organisms and complex environments vary in many dimensions beyond those being tested.  Consequently, in order to judge whether the results we see—the impact of a pollutant, the importance of a habitat feature, whether a set of specimens are one species or two—are real, statistical tests are essential.

So, as much as we hate thinking about statistics, performing the tests and interpreting the results according to rigorous standards, that is what transforms conservation from advocacy to science.  Three cheers for R. A. Fischer and for the statistics he burdened us with!

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ronald-Aylmer-Fisher.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

Famous Scientists.org.  Ronald fisher.  Available at:  https://www.famousscientists.org/ronald-fisher/.  Accessed February 12, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

October 1
Yosemite National Park Created (1890)
October 2
San Diego Zoo Founded (1916)
October 3
James Herriot, English Veterinarian, Born (1916)
October 4
Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Ecology
October 5
Catherine Cooper Hopley, British Herpetologist, Born (1817)
October 6
Mad Hatter’s Day
October 7
Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, Born (1888)
October 8
World Octopus Day
October 9
Vajont Dam Disaster (1963)
October 10
Dnieper Dam Began Operation (1932)
October 11
Big Cypress and Big Thicket National Preserves Created (1974)
October 12
William Laurance, Tropical Conservationist, Born (1957)
October 13
International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction
October 14
Timpanogos Cave National Monument Created (1922)
October 15
Isabella Bird, Pioneering Eco-traveler, Born (1831)
October 16
World Food Day
October 17
Oliver Rackham born (1939)
October 18
Clean Water Act established (1972)
October 19
Research Vessel Albatross Launched (1882)
October 20
OPEC Oil Embargo (1973)
October 21
“Ding” Darling born (1876)
October 22
Wombat Day
October 23
Cumberland Island National Seashore established (1972)
October 24
Antoni von Leeuwenhoek born (1632)
October 25
Secretary of the Interior Convicted in Teapot Dome Scandal (1929)
October 26
Erie Canal Opens (1825)
October 27
Golden Gate and Gateway National Recreation Areas Created (1972)
October 28
Henry Mosby, Wild Turkey Biologist, Born (1913)
October 28
First Ticker-tape Parade Held (1886)
October 29
Stanley Park, Vancouver, Dedicated (1889)
October 30
UNESCO Designates 9 Natural World Heritage Sites (1981)
October 31
Lincoln Highway Dedicated (1913)
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