Separating the Math and the Mathematician

I recently gave a talk Ronald Fisher and Maximum Likelihood Estimation on the pioneering statistician Ronald Fisher and his development of the method of maximum likelihood estimation, one of his several major contributions to statistics.

Ronald Fisher in 1913

Ronald Fisher in 1913

Ronald Fisher was a brilliant mathematician whose methods remain in widespread use today, often by scientists and engineers who don’t know that he invented those methods. He was also a very difficult person — arrogant, self-righteous, with a bad temper and an oversized ego — who became embroiled in a series of bitter hate-filled feuds with his rivals and colleagues including Karl Pearson, Egon Pearson (Karl Pearson’s son), Jerzy Neyman, and Sewall Wright.

Fisher, like his rival Karl Pearson and many other pioneers of statistics, was an advocate of the controversial field of eugenics. Later in life, Fisher, a life-long smoker, was an outspoken opponent of the idea that smoking caused lung cancer and did consulting work for tobacco companies at the same time.

It would be wrong to blame the feuds solely on Fisher. Professional jealousy and resentment of a brilliant but brash young upstart also played a role. His rivals had significant faults too. Nonetheless, Ronald Fisher was a man with serious personal faults — a great mathematician but not a great human being.

Ronald Fisher is not unusual. Isaac Newton, the inventor of calculus and Newtonian physics, was a vindictive man who became embroiled in bitter feuds with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Robert Hooke and others. Galileo was an arrogant jerk who, unable to prove his theory that the Earth was moving, embraced an obviously inaccurate theory of the tides in a failed attempt to prove his ideas, either wishful thinking or deliberate fraud. Johannes Kepler may have murdered Tycho Brahe for Brahe’s data on the motions of Mars and other planets and to advance his career in the imperial court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.

Deeply flawed, even truly evil people can produce great works of mathematics, science, engineering, art, music, and literature. This is often encountered in entertainment, in the arts and music where cautionary phrases such as “sometimes the music is mightier than the man,” “confusing the magic and the magician,” and “separate the art from artist” are recounted by veterans.


Popular mathematics writing, popular science writing, and textbooks are particularly prone to hagiographic portrayals of mathematicians, scientists, and other academic scholars as wise, saintly altruistic truth-seekers, sometimes contrasted to corrupt and/or inept institutions like the Catholic Church in many accounts of Galileo.

One often encounters the argument that mathematicians, scientists, and other scholars are so bright that they could make more money in the private sector/business/industry and so their motivations must be pure and altruistic. This is false.

People pursue careers for many reasons. Ego-gratification and the desire to go down in history are selfish motivations although the goal is not money. Mercenaries who are drawn to soldiering by the adrenaline rush of battle or the power trip of killing someone in combat are not primarily motivated by the money but are not saints or idealists either — far from it.

Some mathematicians and scientists approach their field as a sport like football or basketball, savoring the thrill of competition and victory over other players more than the “truth” or some other idealistic goal. Math Olympiads, prizes, and other institutions encourage and reward this attitude.

A mathematician may believe he or she has a special aptitude for math or a particular field of math that is not transferrable to business. Successful scholars, tenured faculty at major research universities like Harvard or MIT do quite well and can have outside interests, consulting contracts, best-selling books, TV shows, and so forth that they could not have in a business career.

The correlation between intelligence and success in a business career is far from perfect. Interpersonal skills, personal and family connections, pure luck, and other factors play a substantial role.

It is usually true that most graduate students, post-doctoral research associates (post-docs), and staff researchers could arguably do better in business, at least in software engineering today, but the big winners, the tenured faculty and principal investigators on research grants and contracts are in a different category.

There are many other reasons than altruism for a brilliant or gifted person to pursue a scholarly career. Fisher’s hated rival Egon Pearson was the son of Karl Pearson and essentially inherited his father’s position. Fisher himself gained the patronage and support of Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son and a leading figure in the English eugenics movement and a member of the wealthy and influential Darwin-Wedgwood clan, while a student at Cambridge, a special edge that most brilliant or gifted persons pursuing an academic career lack. Special advantages or a rigged playing field can trump generalities.

Even genuine altruism, especially combined with a belief that one is special or carrying out a divinely inspired mission, can lead to truly horrific acts. The end justifies the means.

Being a good person in a moral or spiritual sense takes more than mere intent or desire. Like most things, it takes study and practice. That study and practice must take time away from the study and practice of mathematics or any other field of human endeavor. That is one of the reasons the very best in many fields often prove disappointing as people.

The Imperfection Argument

Sometimes people will shut down or try to shut down a discussion or criticism of the personal or moral failings of a “great” man or woman by saying “nobody is perfect” or “well, yes, Ronald Fisher wasn’t perfect” or “Ronald Fisher wasn’t a saint.” This is of course true. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. These statements are almost always true of everyone — unless the person in question actually is or was a saint. 🙂

This imperfection argument diverts attention from the question of the nature and severity of the flaws being discussed or criticized. How imperfect was the “great” man or woman? What did they actually do wrong? Were there extenuating circumstances?

If Ronald Fisher had lost his temper once a year when especially tired or under particularly trying circumstances only to apologize later, he would still not have been perfect. But part of the issue is that he had a much worse temper than this.


It is important to separate the math and the mathematician, not to confuse technical prowess or genius or success with moral character or wisdom. We can respect the abilities, skills, and experience of a mathematician without respecting him or her as a human being. Trusting someone because of their success in mathematics — or any other field — is a mistake. They must prove themselves in other ways than mathematics to earn our respect as a human being and to earn our trust.

© 2016 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at [email protected].


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