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I'm looking for good or reputable references (books, articles, possibly documentaries, instructional videos, podcasts or radio shows, etc.) directly related to the history of ethics in statistics.

The kind of references I'm looking for include:

  • Biographies or accounts of historical events, ​prominently involving ethical issues directly related to statistics.
  • The history of codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for statisticians.

I ask out of curiosity and for my personal instruction (not for professional purposes), so I don't mind resources focused only on a specific field of research (medicine, environment, etc.).

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    $\begingroup$ @StephanKolassa I restricted the scope of the question to just history. I hope it will be OK. $\endgroup$
    – Daniela
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ We had a discussion about an ethics tag at Meta which is tangentially related. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, that edit focuses the question very nicely. +1. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ On the history aspect of the question: I like the Golden Holocaust by Robert Proctor. It's about the tobacco industry which had quite a few epidemiologists and statisticians inadvertently or not making arguments on its behalf. (This includes R.A. Fisher.) It's a great book. Perhaps more about the lack of ethical standards rather than their codification. $\endgroup$
    – dipetkov
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ From a more data-sciency perspective, there's this course. $\endgroup$
    – Björn
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 13:06

9 Answers 9

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For a historical account, I would suggest "The Golden Holocaust" by Robert Proctor. It's about the tobacco industry which had scientists, epidemiologists and statisticians inadvertently or not making arguments on its behalf. (This includes R.A. Fisher.)

PS: The full title is "The Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition", so I would caution that this book is part history, part advocacy. It's a great book.

Another recommendation: "Voices in the Code: A Story about People, Their Values, and the Algorithm They Made" by David Robinson. This one tackles ethical questions head-on; it's about the limits of technology and science (statistics, machine learning, artificial intelligence) to make hard ethical choices.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! (I upvoted your answer earlier, but didn't have the time to leave a comment). The title of this book and the author name sound familiar, maybe I heard about it a couple of years ago and forgot about it. Anyway, it seems to be exactly the kind of reference I'm looking for, even better if this is a great book. I will definitely look for a copy of it. $\endgroup$
    – Daniela
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ Just remembered another one that I read recently; it's more explicitly about ethics and I liked it also. (I'm aware that there is a theme running through the literature I like reading.) Thanks for a fun question! $\endgroup$
    – dipetkov
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ As a "view from the inside": Donald Rubin also consulted for the tobacco industry and wrote a paper in 2002 about why. Here it is being linked and discussed by his student Andrew Gelman: statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2005/10/10/the_ethics_of_c $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @LukasLohse Thanks. I've also read A. Gelman's follow up here: doi.org/10.1080/09332480.2012.726563. In fact, this reminds me that AG had an "Ethics and Statistics" column in CHANCE going. I wonder what happened with it? $\endgroup$
    – dipetkov
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 15:06
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I have two books in my shelf that may fit here, to some extent. I don't want to imply by any means that they are the "best" or most essential ones, and they are probably not exactly what the question is asking for, but both have some relevant historical information and discussion of the matter.

Alain Desrosieres: The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. Harvard University Press 2002.

Lawrence Hubert, Howard Wainer: A Statistical Guide for the Ethically Perplexed. CRC/Chapman & Hall 2012.

Here's a paper that seems to fit:

Zyphur, M.J., Pierides, D.C. Statistics and Probability Have Always Been Value-Laden: An Historical Ontology of Quantitative Research Methods. J Bus Ethics 167, 1–18 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04187-8

Also I read at some point Gigerenzer et al.s "The Empire of Chance", but don't remember anymore how much on ethics there was in it. Or rather, it was less than I expected, but maybe still enough to be of interest.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! I upvoted your answer earlier but didn't have the time to leave a comment. In fact I do have a copy of Desrosieres' book, but haven't had the time to start it yet... Your answer is good reminder :) Thanks for the other references. $\endgroup$
    – Daniela
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Daniela I upvoted your question as well; I hope there will be further answers. Very interesting question. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 18:46
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In the direction of data dredging and p-hacking there have been several articles dealing with this issue like:

Gelman, A., & Loken, E. (2013). The garden of forking paths: Why multiple comparisons can be a problem, even when there is no “fishing expedition” or “p-hacking” and the research hypothesis was posited ahead of time. Department of Statistics, Columbia University, 348, 1-17.

Ioannidis, J. P. (2005). Why most published research findings are false. PLoS medicine, 2(8), e124.

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In the 'Cognitive style of PowerPoint' Edward Tufte critiques the low information content and simplification caused by PowerPoint presentations. He explains this with several cases studies, among which the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

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There was involvement by many statisticians in the controversies about eugenics. I am not aware of a single source about this but starting with the Wikipedia entries on eugenics or scientific racism and then following with the articles on Fisher, Pearson and Galton would give a good start on the historical background and also modern controversies about eugenics in the 21st century.

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    $\begingroup$ And today, so-called transhumanism is a new eugenics! so that idea are not dead. One good reference is Stephen Jay Gould: "The Mismeasure of Man" $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ The history of statistics and eugenics is described in The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820--1900 , by Theodore Porter. I learned about this book (and that early history) here: stat.cmu.edu/~cshalizi/ineq/22. $\endgroup$
    – dipetkov
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 20:00
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As per the process of hypothesis testing and how the p-value became everything, here's a really recommended reading:

Ziliak, Stephen T., and Deirdre N. McCloskey. "The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives" (amazon)

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For a different perspective -

on using data intentionally to reflect an (equity-centered) ethical standpoint

This guidebook from Urban Institute talks about using data in data visualizations with an awareness of equity.
It highlights the ever-present ethical choices around what to measure and how to communicate it, from the perspective of communicating the data in visuals.

There's so much to understanding quantitative data that many people are taught to gloss over
as though math washes away the very human decisions behind it.

Schwabish, J., & Feng, A. (2021). Do No Harm Guide: Applying Equity Awareness in Data Visualization (p. 44) [Guidebook;pdf]. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/do-no-harm-guide-applying-equity-awareness-data-visualization

It also contains references throughout which may be of further use ~

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if this answer is relevant given the question is about the history of ethics in statistics. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ how ethics are used is part of the history $\endgroup$
    – Mike M
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 5:10
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This is a good classic.

How to lie with statistics (1954)

It's been a best-seller for decades, and used in a lot of college / university classes worldwide. While it doesn't focus purely on ethics, it has a solid foundation of ethics all the way throughout.

Would recommend!

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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly, Darrell Huff was paid lots of money by the tobacco industry to be an expert witness for them. That story is well known. Here is Andrew Gelman discussing it on his blog: “How to Lie with Statistics” guy worked for the tobacco industry to mock studies of the risks of smoking statistics. $\endgroup$
    – dipetkov
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ Also here is Tim Harford, data journalist and host of the BBC program "More or Less", discussing "How to lie with statistic"; how its weakness is it teaches how statistics can mislead but doesn't teach the skills to distinguish statistics that we can trust from the lies: How to Truth with Statistics. $\endgroup$
    – dipetkov
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 11:09
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    $\begingroup$ A side-comment: Huff's book may have been one of the first books on statistics to include cartoons, but (by present standards) an astonishing number of those cartoons feature people smoking -- and -- it couldn't get worse but it does -- even babies smoking. I refer to the 1954 original but I bought a copy of the US edition about a decade ago and it had the original cartoons. Credit where credit is due: a British reprint in 1973 threw out all the cartoons and replaced them with fresh ones. Still in the 1950s it was common for tobacco advertisements to include endorsement from medics. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 17:54
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Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Measurement in the Human Sciences Credos and Controversies is a great reference for those interested in Educatational and Psychological Measurement/Psychometrics, as it covers the history of eugenics. Additionally, The Mismeasure of Man suggested by @kjetil b halvorsen is a good book on this topic as well.

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