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Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age

Theodore M. Porter
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Ramachandran Bharath
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People acquainted with the history of statistics are fully aware that Karl Pearson (1857-1936) was a revolutionary scientist who essentially founded the science of statistics as we know it today. For others, especially those in the vast variety of fields in which statistics is routinely used, Pearson is just the eponym for Pearson's correlation coefficient or Pearson's chi-squared. The author quotes a mournful comment which Pearson made: "Twenty years hence a curve or a symbol will be called as Pearson's, and nothing more remembered of the toil of the years". And that is exactly what has happened.

Theodore Porter's Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age explores the fullness and richness of Pearson's intellectual and emotional life, shows us how "the toil of the years" led to the revolution he wrought in statistics. It details his early intellectual journeys as a philosopher of science, culminating in his then pathbreaking book, The Grammar of Science. It describes his strong and lifelong belief in socialism, and his strong advocacy of education later in life for the working classes and of equal rights for women, and his efforts to help achieve these goals.

All these interests merged when he was about 35 years old, when he had what one might call an epiphany: he realized that the solution to these and other problems required careful and detailed statistical analysis. The application of statistics to science and to human affairs became the ruling passion of his life for the next forty years. There are many strands in this book, and as one reads it, it makes one pause again and again to think about the many fundamental questions which engaged Pearson: the nature of knowledge, the nature of science, the question of equal rights for all sections of the people, the problem of scientific rivalry as in the case of Pearson and R. A. Fisher — and many more such issues. The description of Pearson's sometimes stormy relationships with people, including a few key women in his life, one of them his first wife, is also fascinating and thought provoking.

The book is not merely a picture of a great and revolutionary thinker, it makes the reader reflect on many key questions. As such, I would recommend it as book which would both widen and deepen the reader's understanding of the human condition in general. Most of the book is about these general questions, and only a quarter is about the technical questions of statistics, and those too are explained in a non-technical manner.The book would therefore be a source of both pleasure and profit to any serious reader.

Ramachandran Bharath teaches at the American University in Bulgaria.

Preface and Acknowledgments vii
CHAPTER ONE Introduction: An Improbable Personage 1
CHAPTER TWO Lehrjahre of a Poetic Wrangler 13
CHAPTER THREE Apostle of Renunciation: A New Werther 43
CHAPTER FOUR Pearson's Progress: A Nineteenth-Century Passion Play 69
CHAPTER FIVE Cultural Historian in a Political Age 91
CHAPTER SIX Intellectual Love and the Woman Question 125
CHAPTER SEVEN Ether Squirts and the Inaccessibility of Nature 178
CHAPTER EIGHT Scientific Education and Graphical Statistics 215
CHAPTER NINE The Statistical Reformation 249
CHAPTER TEN Epilogue: Composing a Life 297
Bibliography 315
Index 329