Karl Pearson’s Worst Quotation?

The famous statistician Karl Pearson was also a eugenicist, so there are a great many hair-raising quotations to choose from. I nominate the following two for being particularly shocking (for more information see Wikipedia and the Guardian). Brace yourself, here is quotation number one:


“History shows me one way, and one way only, in which a high state of civilization has been produced, namely, the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race. If you want to know whether the lower races of man can evolve a higher type, I fear the only course is to leave them to fight it out among themselves, and even then the struggle for existence between individual and individual, between tribe and tribe, may not be supported by that physical selection due to a particular climate on which probably so much of the Aryan’s success depended.” (Karl Pearson, 1901, pp. 19-20)

At the time, Pearson certainly wasn’t the only academic who felt this way, and the Holocaust lay hidden in the future, but such statements nevertheless have a spine-chilling effect. I browsed Pearson’s 1901 book and he goes on like this for a couple of pages more, discussing the inferiority of the negro race and the dangers of cross-racial relationships — “if the bad stock be raised the good is lowered”. Nausea prevented me from reading further.

With this background in mind, ladies and gentlemen, hold your hats for quotation number two. This quotation requires some background, provided by Wikipedia:

“In The Myth of the Jewish Race Raphael and Jennifer Patai cite Karl Pearson’s 1925 opposition (in the first issue of the journal Annals of Eugenics which he founded) to Jewish immigration into Britain. Pearson alleged that these immigrants “will develop into a parasitic race. […] Taken on the average, and regarding both sexes, this alien Jewish population is somewhat inferior physically and mentally to the native population.” (entire citation: Wikipedia; last quotation: Pearson & Moul, 1925, pp. 125-126).

So there we stand. Karl Pearson –brilliant scientist, phenomenal writer, convinced socialist and freethinker– was about as racist as they come. Before we harshly judge Karl Pearson, we should keep in mind that Ronald Fisher was also a racist, and remained so even after the Holocaust. And lest you think that only the fathers of modern frequentism are racist, famous economist and Bayesian John Maynard Keynes still believed, in 1946, that eugenics was “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists”. Such statements permanent stain otherwise brilliant academic legacies. Sad.

Karl Pearson, on the left, together with the 87-year old Francis Galton. Source: Wikipedia.


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Patai, R. & Patai, J. (1989). The Myth of the Jewish Race. Wayne State University Press.

Pearson, K. (1901). National Life from the Standpoint of Science. London: Adam & Charles Black.

Pearson, K., & Moul, M. (1925). The problem of alien immigration into Great Britain, illustrated by an examination of Russian and Polish Jewish children: Part II. Annals of Eugenics. NB. I could only find Parts I and III online; Part II contains the quotation.

About The Author

Eric-Jan Wagenmakers

Eric-Jan (EJ) Wagenmakers is professor at the Psychological Methods Group at the University of Amsterdam.
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