Karl Pearson and eugenics: personal opinions and scientific rigor

Sci Eng Ethics. 2013 Sep;19(3):1057-70. doi: 10.1007/s11948-012-9415-2. Epub 2012 Nov 21.


The influence of personal opinions and biases on scientific conclusions is a threat to the advancement of knowledge. Expertise and experience does not render one immune to this temptation. In this work, one of the founding fathers of statistics, Karl Pearson, is used as an illustration of how even the most talented among us can produce misleading results when inferences are made without caution or reference to potential bias and other analysis limitations. A study performed by Pearson on British Jewish schoolchildren is examined in light of ethical and professional statistical practice. The methodology used and inferences made by Pearson and his coauthor are sometimes questionable and offer insight into how Pearson's support of eugenics and his own British nationalism could have potentially influenced his often careless and far-fetched inferences. A short background into Pearson's work and beliefs is provided, along with an in-depth examination of the authors' overall experimental design and statistical practices. In addition, portions of the study regarding intelligence and tuberculosis are discussed in more detail, along with historical reactions to their work.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Emigrants and Immigrants / history*
  • Eugenics / history*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Intelligence*
  • Jews / history
  • Research Design
  • Statistics as Topic / ethics
  • Statistics as Topic / history*
  • Tuberculosis / history*
  • United Kingdom

Personal name as subject

  • Karl Pearson