down with Galton (and Pearson and Fisher…)


In the last issue of Significance, which I read in Warwick prior to the conference, there is a most interesting article on Galton’s eugenics, his heritage at University College London (UCL), and the overall trouble with honouring prominent figures of the past with memorials like named building or lectures… The starting point of this debate is a protest from some UCL students and faculty about UCL having a lecture room named after the late Francis Galton who was a professor there. Who further donated at his death most of his fortune to the university towards creating a professorship in eugenics. The protests are about Galton’s involvement in the eugenics movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. As well as professing racist opinions.

My first reaction after reading about these protests was why not?! Named places or lectures, as well as statues and other memorials, have a limited utility, especially when the named person is long dead and they certainly do not contribute in making a scientific theory [associated with the said individual] more appealing or more valid. And since “humans are [only] humans”, to quote Stephen Stigler speaking in this article, it is unrealistic to expect great scientists to be perfect, the more if one multiplies the codes for ethical or acceptable behaviours across ages and cultures. It is also more rational to use amphitheater MS.02 and lecture room AC.18 rather than associate them with one name chosen out of many alumni’s or former professors’.

Predictably, another reaction of mine was why bother?!, as removing Galton’s name from the items it is attached to is highly unlikely to change current views on eugenism or racism. On the opposite, it seems to detract from opposing the present versions of these ideologies. As some recent proposals linking genes and some form of academic success. Another of my (multiple) reactions was that as stated in the article these views of Galton’s reflected upon the views and prejudices of the time, when the notions of races and inequalities between races (as well as genders and social classes) were almost universally accepted, including in scientific publications like the proceedings of the Royal Society and Nature. When Karl Pearson launched the Annals of Eugenics in 1925 (after he started Biometrika) with the very purpose of establishing a scientific basis for eugenics. (An editorship that Ronald Fisher would later take over, along with his views on the differences between races, believing that “human groups differ profoundly in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development”.) Starting from these prejudiced views, Galton set up a scientific and statistical approach to support them, by accumulating data and possibly modifying some of these views. But without much empathy for the consequences, as shown in this terrible quote I found when looking for more material:

“I should feel but little compassion if I saw all the Damaras in the hand of a slave-owner, for they could hardly become more wretched than they are now…”

As it happens, my first exposure to Galton was in my first probability course at ENSAE when a terrific professor was peppering his lectures with historical anecdotes and used to mention Galton’s data-gathering trip to Namibia, literally measure local inhabitants towards his physiognomical views , also reflected in the above attempt of his to superpose photographs to achieve the “ideal” thief…

4 Responses to “down with Galton (and Pearson and Fisher…)”

  1. Julio Michael Stern Says:

    K.Pearson’s approach to eugenics is based on his philosophical ideas that, in turn, are reflected in the language of frequentist statistics. Hence, it is not possible, to compartmentalize, separate and isolate those issues, as suggested. For further details, see:
    > J.M. Stern (2018). Karl Pearson and the Logic of Science: Renouncing Causal Understanding (the Bride) and Inverted Spinozism. South American Journal of Logic, 4 (1) 219-252.

  2. Given that Francis Galton was born and raised quite close to my home town, this comment will not be impartial.

    Nevertheless, I feel that Galton (like many others of the time) incorrectly tried to explain cultural differences that were believed to exist in the late 19th and early 20th century using genetics. Getting carried away with the explanatory power of genetics is a bubble that has only recently been burst by the human genome project, so perhaps he should be forgiven for this mistake(?)

    Also, the question should be whether or not Galton would have wanted this lecture room to be named after him, given that it is clearly where some quite narrow-minded undergraduate students are educated. Maybe he is turning in his grave(?)

    In summary, don’t mess with the statistical greats for their political opinions! Their far more important statistical opinions are of course another matter.

  3. Emmanuel Charpentier Says:

    Would you extend this to other mathematicians such as [Laplace](https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Simon_de_Laplace) or [Cauchy](https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Simon_de_Laplace), whose eminent mathematical merits are somewhat obfuscated (at least in our current vision) by questionable (to say the least…) moral/philosophical/political issues and extreme spine suppleness in one case, extreme rigidity in the other ?

    • Ah, well, despite my admiration for the Swiss-knife genius of Laplace, with much less for Cauchy whose paternity of many results bearing his name can be disputed!, I would indeed extend the “why bother” reaction to this set of characters! This issue with nominating things after highly significant scientists is that they are not the academic or scientific equivalent of religious saints (who themselves are most likely open to similar criticisms!). If we could abstain from the nominating game, this would save the subsequent debates on the need for denominating.

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