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

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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