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The Emergence of Modern Statistics in Agricultural Science: Analysis of Variance, Experimental Design and the Reshaping of Research at Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919–1933

Abstract

During the twentieth century statistical methods have transformed research in the experimental and social sciences. Qualitative evidence has largely been replaced by quantitative results and the tools of statistical inference have helped foster a new ideal of objectivity in scientific knowledge. The paper will investigate this transformation by considering the genesis of analysis of variance and experimental design, statistical methods nowadays taught in every elementary course of statistics for the experimental and social sciences. These methods were developed by the mathematician and geneticist R. A. Fisher during the 1920s, while he was working at Rothamsted Experimental Station, where agricultural research was in turn reshaped by Fisher’s methods. Analysis of variance and experimental design required new practices and instruments in field and laboratory research, and imposed a redistribution of expertise among statisticians, experimental scientists and the farm staff. On the other hand the use of statistical methods in agricultural science called for a systematization of information management and made computing an activity integral to the experimental research done at Rothamsted, permanently integrating the statisticians’ tools and expertise into the station research programme. Fisher’s statistical methods did not remain confined within agricultural research and by the end of the 1950s they had come to stay in psychology, sociology, education, chemistry, medicine, engineering, economics, quality control, just to mention a few of the disciplines which adopted them.

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Parolini, G. The Emergence of Modern Statistics in Agricultural Science: Analysis of Variance, Experimental Design and the Reshaping of Research at Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919–1933. J Hist Biol 48, 301–335 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-014-9394-z

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Keywords

  • Agriculture
  • Archives
  • Computing
  • Experimentation
  • R. A. Fisher
  • Statistics