Making Sense of Figures


I have called my paper “The Logic of Inductive Inference.” It might just as well have been called “On making sense of figures.” For everyone who does habitually attempt the difficult task of making sense of figures is, in  fact, essaying a logical process of the kind we call inductive, in that he is attempting to draw inferences from the particular to the general; or, as we more usually say in statistics, from the sample to the population. 

(R. A. Fisher, The Logic of Inductive Inference, 1935)


Throughout the twentieth century statistical methods have increasingly become part of experimental research. In particular, statistics has made quantification processes meaningful in the soft sciences, which had traditionally relied on activities such as collecting and describing diversity rather than timing variation. The thesis explores this change in relation to agriculture and biology, focusing on analysis of variance and experimental design, the statistical methods developed by the mathematician and geneticist Ronald Aylmer Fisher during the 1920s. The role that Fisher’s methods acquired as tools of scientific research, side by side with the laboratory equipment and the field practices adopted by research workers, is here investigated bottom-up, beginning with the computing instruments and the information technologies that were the tools of the trade for statisticians. Four case studies show under several perspectives the interaction of statistics, computing and information technologies, giving on the one hand an overview of the main tools – mechanical calculators, statistical tables, punched and index cards, standardised forms, digital computers – adopted in the period, and on the other pointing out how these tools complemented each other and were instrumental for the development and dissemination of analysis of variance and experimental design. The period considered is the half-century from the early 1920s to the late 1960s, the institutions investigated are Rothamsted Experimental Station and the Galton Laboratory, and the statisticians examined are Ronald Fisher and Frank Yates.



A review of my dissertation, written by Dominic Berry, has been published here.


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