Why the father of modern statistics — R A Fisher — denied smoking causes cancer

10 Nov, 2019 at 15:16 | Posted in Statistics & Econometrics | 2 Comments

In 1959, Fisher denounced his colleagues for manufacturing anti-smoking “propaganda” … He did not dispute that smoking and lung cancer tended to rise and fall together—that is, that they were correlated. But Hill and Doll and the entire British medical establishment had committed “an error … of an old kind, in arguing from correlation to causation,” he wrote in a letter to Nature

UnknownMost researchers had evaluated the association between smoking and cancer and concluded that the former caused the latter. But what if the opposite were true?

For a time, many of Fisher’s peers in academic statistics, including Jerzy Neyman, questioned the validity of a causal claim. But before long, the majority buckled under the weight of mounting evidence and overwhelming consensus …

In his review of the debate, the epidemiologist Paul Stolley lambasts Fisher for being “unwilling to seriously examine the data and to review all the evidence before him to try to reach a judicious conclusion.” According to Stolley, Fisher undermined Hill and Doll’s conclusions by cherry picking irregular findings and blowing them out of proportion … Others have offered less charitable interpretations … even [suggesting] that his skepticism had been bought. The Tobacco Manufacturers’ Committee had agreed to fund Fisher’s research into possible genetic causes of both smoking and lung cancer. And though it seems unlikely that a man who routinely insulted his peers and jeopardized his career in order to prove that he was right would sell his professional opinion at such an old age, some still regard him as doing so.

If Fisher wasn’t swayed by money, it seems more likely that he was influenced by politics.

Throughout his life, Fisher was an unflinching reactionary. In 1911, while studying at Cambridge, he helped found the university’s Eugenics Society. Though many well-educated English men of the day embraced this ideology, Fisher took to the issue with an unusual fervency. Throughout his career, he intermittently wrote papers on the subject. A particular concern of Fisher’s was that upper class families were having fewer children than their poorer and less educated counter-parts. At one point, he suggested that the government pay “intelligent” couples to procreate … These political leanings may have colored his views on smoking.

Ben Christopher/Priceonomics


  1. What if the opposite were true? That cancer caused smoking? Silly notion. But if one is then looking at the genetic component — namely that genetics caused both, then the correlation would be 1 not a fraction thereof. And there are people who smoke all their lives and never contract cancer. I never deny the role of genetics or nature in human phenomena but there seem to be some holes in Fisher’s thinking. That there could be a gene responsible for smoking and cancer seems patently silly.

    • I would not dismiss the genetics thing too quickly. I suffer from a disease which has a genetic element – current research suggests that if you have certain genes you MIGHT get the disease and if you don’t have certain genes you will not get the disease. It is possible there is something similar with lung cancer and/or an addiction to smoking. I doubt it, but it is possible.

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