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The Briar and the Rose
The Common Origins of Eugenics and Mathematical Statistics
Rose-and-thorns in pen-and-ink generated by AI at Craiyon.com
I picked a rose one early morn
I pricked my finger on a thorn
They'd grown so close their winding wove
The briar and the rose
— Tom Waits, “The Briar and the Rose”
Eugenics was the briar and statistics the rose. The core of every college statistics course, applied probability theory, grew out of eugenicists’ insistence on breeding people like vegetables and neutering them like dogs or cattle. Across half the 20th century, 70,000 Americans had their reproductive organs butchered by the states in the name of eugenics—backed by statistics. At the same time, the same statistical tools enabled us to develop rocketry, nuclear physics, pharmaceutical testing, electronic telecommunications, quality control, genomics, epidemiology, and artificial intelligence. This duality suggests a healthy dose of caution when it comes with scientific data and conclusions.
The mathematical field of statistics was largely the brainchild of three English eugenicists—Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), Karl Pearson (1857-1936), and Sir Ronald Fisher. They specifically created the field to give scientific heft to their snobbery and racism—and to validate eugenic social engineering programs. Their genius was matched by their hubris, as they came to see their statistical tools as beyond question. As mathematician Aubrey Clayton wrote, Galton, Pearson, and Fisher “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.” This perception, that statistics can speak for themselves (or that science can speak for itself), was one of history’s most destructive concepts.
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At first, the goal of eugenics was upper-crust endogamy—swells marrying swells to breed super-babies. In the early 20th century, though, a more virulent strain of eugenics emerged in America. A 1911, a Carnegie Institute-supported study casually raised the possibility of euthanizing those deemed “unfit.” Ultimately, American eugenicists settled on forced sterilization, unleashed by the now-infamous Buck v. Bell Supreme Court ruling (1927) in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” Six years later, eugenics became the central organizing principle of the Third Reich. Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess said in 1934 “National Socialism is nothing more than applied biology”—and he probably meant it. In 1939, Dr. Edward DeJarnette, a prominent eugenicist and supervisor of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, observed Nazi Germany’s prodigious use of sterilization and said, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.” (These American-German cross-currents are hauntingly described in a 45-minute documentary, The Lynchburg Story.)
Galton was Charles Darwin’s cousin and indisputably one of the most brilliant minds of the 19th Century. Following is a slightly edited list of his accomplishments, listed with his Wikipedia biography:
behavioral genetics, regression toward the mean, standard deviation, anticyclone, isochrone map, weather map, Galton board, Galton distribution, Galton–Watson process, Galton's problem, and Galton's whistle (a.k.a. “dog whistle”)
He also originated the use of questionnaires in psychological research and fingerprints as a means of identification.
Galton is probably best known today, however, for coining the term “eugenics”—from the Greek for “well-born”— in 1883. He called his idea, “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” In the spirit of a farmer raising soybeans or sheep, Galton saw eugenics as giving “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.” He also issued demeaning descriptions of Africans and suggested turning portions of Africa over to Chinese immigrants, who he considered to be superior to Africans.
Pearson was a pioneer of biometrics, and his mathematical discoveries were integral to Einstein’s work on relativity. His slightly edited Wikipedia list of accomplishments includes:
principal component analysis, Pearson distribution, Pearson's chi-squared test, Pearson's r, Phi coefficient, chi-square distribution, contingency table, histogram, kurtosis, mode, random walk, and The Grammar of Science
Pearson saw eugenics as, “the directed and self-conscious evolution of the human race.” As Hitler rose to power, Pearson wrote of Britain’s then-growing Jewish population, “[they] will develop into a parasitic race … this alien Jewish population is somewhat inferior physically and mentally to the native population.”
Pearson believed in statistics and science. As Clayton wrote, “In Pearson’s view, it was only by allowing the numbers to tell their own story that we could see these truths for what they were. If anyone objected to Pearson’s conclusions, for example that genocide and race wars were instruments of progress, they were arguing against cold, hard logic and allowing passion to displace truth.”
Fisher was at times colleague, rival, and enemy of Pearson. Their politics were starkly different (Fisher was conservative, Pearson was socialist), but they shared an enthusiasm for eugenics. A slightly edited list of Fisher’s accomplishments, taken from his Wikipedia biography, suggests the magnitude of his intellect and energy:
Fisher's exact test, Fisher's inequality, Fisher's principle, Fisher's geometric model, Fisher's Iris data set, Fisher's linear discriminant, Fisher's equation, Fisher information, Fisher's method, Fisherian runaway, Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection, Fisher's noncentral hypergeometric distribution, Fisher's z-distribution, Fisher transformation, Fisher consistency, F-distribution, F-test, Fisher–Tippett distribution, Fisher–Tippett–Gnedenko theorem, Fisher–Yates shuffle, Fisher–Race blood group system, Behrens–Fisher problem, Cornish–Fisher expansion, von Mises–Fisher distribution, family allowance, Wright–Fisher model, ancillary statistic, fiducial inference, intraclass correlation, infinitesimal model, inverse probability, lady tasting tea, null hypothesis, maximum likelihood estimation, neutral theory of molecular evolution, particulate inheritance, random effects model, relative species abundance, reproductive value, sexy son hypothesis, sufficient statistic, analysis of variance, and variance itself
Fisher also devised eugenic theories on the downfall of civilization and helped lead a movement advocating voluntary sterilization for less productive members of society. After the Nuremberg trials, Fisher wrote of Nazi eugenicist Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (Josef Mengele’s boss at Auschwitz): “I have no doubt also that the Party sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives, such as those deficient mentally, and I do not doubt that von Verschuer gave, as I would have done, his support to such a movement.”
In the hands of eugenicists, statistics, one of modernity’s greatest gifts, was born as an ideological cudgel. Scientific journals, as meticulously peer-reviewed as any today, formed a solid phalanx of opinion. Those who questioned proven Truths were shouted down and chased from scholarly conferences under threat of violence. Eugenics became settled science, with statistics speaking for themselves.
This problem has receded, but it is not gone. Economist Dierdre McCloskey wrote in 2009 of a “The Cult of Significance,” arguing that Fisher and others stripped the idea of significance of its economic content. Says McCloskey, “Fit is not the same thing as importance. Statistical significance is not the same thing as scientific importance or economic sense.” Much of the scientific world understands this today, but the battle is not yet won—especially in the public sphere. As the aforementioned Clayton wrote, “Even if we use the most technical language, we cannot escape the fact that statistics is a human enterprise subject to human desire, prejudice, consensus, and interpretation. … We should try to be objective, not in the impossible sense that Galton, Pearson, and Fisher claimed granted them authority, but in the way they failed to do when they let the interests of the ruling class dictate the outcome of their research before it began.
As an after-class exercise, I leave it to readers to ponder which scientific fields suffer today from the sort of hubris that eugenicists exhibited—and what the effects are.
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