Ukraine

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The question as to whether to issue a statement on the invasion of Ukraine, and if so what it should say, has been the most challenging issue to face me in my Presidency to date. 

There is no doubting the abhorrence members will feel at military aggression and its impact on civilians.  We will all have our individual views, and many of us will have ways of expressing these to our elected representatives.  This is quite different from the ISI taking a view.  We are an international organisation, that is non-political, and as far as I know we have not previously taken a view in an international conflict.  And of course there have been so many of these in recent decades. 

Our independence from political activities is important for us.  It is a stance we have maintained for 140 years.  Our statutes require us to facilitate collaboration among our diverse membership.  Our independence enables us to support our members in all countries of the world and to organise and support conferences and workshops worldwide.

In such circumstances it is always good to seek advice. My six predecessors as President were consulted, and asked whether there had been anything in their experience to compare with the situation in Ukraine.   No-one had been able to recall a similar situation. 

We also convened a special meeting of ISI Council to discuss the situation.  Clearly there were different views, but there was a consensus that a statement should be made.  This was based on the unique issues that many saw around this conflict, with practically universal condemnation, not only politically, but also by sports, cultural and scientific organisations.  See for example the statement from the International Science Council: https://council.science/current/news/statements-international-scientific-community-conflict-ukraine/ .  Their webpage includes statements from other scientific organisations. 

Having decided to make a statement, Council were keen that it should not condemn either side, but should simply condemn the aggression, and put it in the context of all aggressions.  We needed to express concern and solidarity with colleagues in Ukraine; but also keep lines of communication open with statisticians in Russia, recognising that statisticians are not responsible for the actions of their governments, and should not be penalised for them.  The statement focuses especially on the impact on statistical work and statisticians.

We agreed to two temporary actions: not organising or supporting events in Russia and putting the Central Eurasia Outreach Committee on hold.  Both of these will be reviewed in a few weeks’ time when the situation is clearer.  The fact is that travel to Russia will be difficult for many of our members, and many will not support such events, which would make them unviable.  We feel that the Outreach Committee has great potential in the region, but that these activities would be difficult at present and should be paused for the time being.  

Reaction to the statement from ISI members has been mixed.  We have had a number of messages of support, recognising that this would have been a difficult decision.  Some members have not been happy, some thinking the statement too weak; others too strong.  I have especially valued those who have given views from the point of view of the ISI – an independent statistical association dedicated to international contact and networking between professional statisticians.

So where do we go from here?  Well, we will review the situation in May.  Conflict cannot continue for ever and by then some sort of solution should emerge.  There will be an enormous need for reconstruction in Ukraine, and I hope ISI can help here.  If we do we will need the help of our members.  Ada and I will be attending next month’s IAOS conference in Krakow, Poland, where I am sure we will have some discussions on the best way to proceed.   So look out for updates on this.

Steve

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6 comments on this post

  1. With great surprise bordering on shock, I read this blog published a few days after the official ISI statement on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This blog actually distances itself from the ISI statement that anyway it seemed saw the light of day only because other sports, cultural and scientific organizations had already condemned the aggression.
    Steve Penneck’s text is full of downright shameful phrases like “putting the Central Eurasia Outreach Committee on hold” only because “travel to Russia will be difficult for many of our members”. And it would make events there “unviable.” Unviable?! Or: “Keen not to condemn either side.” Either side?!
    How to interpret that ISI “keep lines of communication open with statisticians in Russia, recognizing that statisticians are not responsible for the actions of their governments”? But someone chose Putin and his people and has allowed them to rule for decades! Do the statisticians take part in the elections, or they don’t? Did the Russian statisticians condemn the aggression of the Russian army against Ukraine or, on the contrary, they turn a blind eye to murdering civilians? We are first and foremost human beings, even statisticians. No one should remain indifferent or “apolitical” to the humanitarian crisis, to the killed children, to the wild destruction of cultural heritage.
    I agree with one statement only in this blog that “we all have our individual views.” This is my individual decision then: I cannot remain in the same organization with those who do not oppose a brutal aggression of one country against another independent country, therefore, today I am resigning from my membership in the ISI.

  2. The history of the RSS suggests that the ISI should not make any political statement unless it specifically involves statistics (e.g., Greece’s former chief statistician). The original RSS logo (1834) was a sheaf of wheat with a banner inscribed with “Aliis Exterendum”: (for others to thresh out, i.e. interpret). This inscription was dropped (1870s-80s) at the same time as statistics were being used as evidence for the Eugenics movement. Eugenics seemed like a good idea for several leading statisticians. Galton coined the word ‘Eugenics’ (1883) and formed the Eugenics Society (1907). Fisher wrote a paper: “Some Hopes of a Eugenist” (1914). Pearson (a social Darwinist) was the first to hold the Galton endowed UCL Chair of Eugenics. In retrospect, the RSS might have been advised to retain the inscription on their logo and stay silent on what seemed to a good and noble cause: eugenics. The ISI should consider learning from the eugenics experience, and think about the difficulty of distinguishing good and bad eugenics. See Clayton’s 2020 Nautilus article, “How Eugenics Shaped Statistics”. Before the ISI condemns aggression, it should think about the difficulty of deciding when the first use of force is aggression. See the ‘castle doctrine’, ‘stand your ground’ and an ‘anticipatory attack’: the 1967 Six Day War. The ISI should stay focused on matters related to its history and mission.

  3. Thank you very much for this balanced statement. Diplomacy is what ISI fits best. Moreover, statisticians are never the key persons in international conflicts and should not be made responsible or blamed for inacceptable government decisions and aggression against other nations.

  4. I think this is disgusting. We can condemn an illegal invasion at the same time as expressing our support for our colleagues in Russia.

  5. Dear Steve,

    The statement is way too weak. At a time where even sports organisations ban participants from Russia (many of them will not be guilty of the invasion, just as some statisticians in Russia, and hopefully some will condemn it), a clearer stand should have been taken.

    Very disappointing.

    Your commentary here seems to indicate that discussions in the ISI council where even much worse than the statement reveals. “Keen not to condemn either side”???? Russia has started a war in another country. What was ISI thinking of condemning Ukraine for? In the mean time Russia has destroyed whole cities and caused many millions of people to run.

    I hope ISI will come to its senses. I am very, very ashamed to be a member.

  6. Steve –
    Much approved. The only thing I would disagree with is not to mention Russia as the aggressor in this business. The whole world (apart from Putin) believes this is all down to Russia and I see no reason to be queasy about this.

    Best wishes

    John Astin

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