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‘‘Describing our whole experience’’: The statistical philosophies of W. F. R. Weldon and Karl Pearson

Pence, Charles H. (2011) ‘‘Describing our whole experience’’: The statistical philosophies of W. F. R. Weldon and Karl Pearson. [Published Article or Volume]

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There are two motivations commonly ascribed to historical actors for taking up statistics: to reduce complicated data to a mean value (e.g., Quetelet), and to take account of diversity (e.g., Galton). Different motivations will, it is assumed, lead to different methodological decisions in the practice of the statistical sciences. Karl Pearson and W. F. R. Weldon are generally seen as following directly in Galton’s footsteps. I argue for two related theses in light of this standard interpretation, based on a reading of several sources in which Weldon, independently of Pearson, reflects on his own motivations. First, while Pearson does approach statistics from this ‘‘Galtonian’’ perspective, he is, consistent with his positivist philosophy of science, utilizing statistics to simplify the highly variable data of biology. Weldon, on the other hand, is brought to statistics by a rich empiricism and a desire to preserve the diversity of biological data. Secondly, we have here a counterexample to the claim that divergence in motivation will lead to a corresponding separation in methodology. Pearson and Weldon, despite embracing biometry for different reasons, settled on precisely the same set of statistical tools for the investigation of evolution.

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Item Type: Published Article or Volume
Pence, Charles
Keywords: Biometry; Mendelism; Karl Pearson; Positivism; Statistics; W. F. R. Weldon
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology > Evolutionary Theory
General Issues > Causation
General Issues > History of Philosophy of Science
General Issues > History of Science Case Studies
Specific Sciences > Probability/Statistics
Depositing User: Charles H. Pence
Date Deposited: 26 Oct 2011 11:39
Last Modified: 26 Oct 2011 11:39
Item ID: 8857
Journal or Publication Title: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Publisher: Elsevier
Official URL:

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