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How Eugenics Shaped Statistics

Exposing the damned lies of three science pioneers.

In early 2018, officials at University College London were shocked to learn that meetings organized by “race scientists” and neo-Nazis, called the London Conference on Intelligence, had been held at the college the previous four years.

The existence of the conference was surprising, but the choice of location was not. UCL was an epicenter of the early 20th-century eugenics movement—a precursor to Nazi “racial hygiene” programs—due to its ties to Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, and his intellectual descendants and fellow eugenicists Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher. In response to protests over the conference, UCL announced this June that it had stripped Galton’s and Pearson’s names from its buildings and classrooms. After similar outcries about eugenics, the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies renamed its annual Fisher Lecture, and the Society for the Study of Evolution did the same for its Fisher Prize. In science, these are the equivalents of toppling a Confederate statue and hurling it into the sea.

Unlike tearing down monuments to white supremacy in the American South, purging statistics of the ghosts of its eugenicist past is not a straightforward proposition. In this version, it’s as if Stonewall Jackson developed quantum physics. What we now understand as statistics comes largely from the work of Galton, Pearson, and Fisher, whose names appear in bread-and-butter terms like “Pearson correlation coefficient” and “Fisher information.” In particular, the beleaguered concept of “statistical significance,” for decades the measure of whether empirical research is publication-worthy, can be traced directly to the trio.

Ideally, statisticians would like to divorce these tools from the lives and times of the people who created them. It would be convenient if statistics existed outside of history, but that’s not the case. Statistics, as a lens through which scientists investigate real-world questions, has always been smudged by the fingerprints of the people holding the lens. Statistical thinking and eugenicist thinking are, in fact, deeply intertwined, and many of the theoretical problems with methods like significance testing—first developed to identify racial differences—are remnants of their original purpose, to support eugenics.

It’s no coincidence that the method of significance testing and the reputations of the people who invented it are crumbling simultaneously. Crumbling alongside them is the image of statistics as a perfectly objective discipline, another legacy of the three eugenicists. Galton, Pearson, and Fisher didn’t just add new tools to the toolbox. In service to their sociopolitical agenda, they established the statistician as an authority figure, a numerical referee who is by nature impartial, they claimed, since statistical analysis is just unbiased number-crunching. Even in their own work, though, they revealed how thin the myth of objectivity always was. The various upheavals happening in statistics today—methodological and symbolic—should properly be understood as parts of a larger story, a reinvention of the discipline and a reckoning with its origins. The buildings and lectures are the monuments to eugenics we can see. The less visible ones are embedded in the language, logic, and philosophy of statistics itself.

Francis Galton, Statistical Pioneer, Labels Africans “Palavering Savages” Eugenics, from the Greek for “well born,” was the brainchild of Galton, a well-born Victorian gentleman scientist from a prominent English family. Thanks to his half-cousin Charles Darwin, Galton adopted the theory of ...