Ten statisticians every psychologist should know about

Karl Pearson of Pearson Correlation fame

As psychology students past and present will be only too aware, statistics are a key part of every psychology undergrad course and they also appear in nearly every published journal article. And yet have we ever stopped to recognise the statisticians who have brought us these wonderful mathematical tools? As psychologist Daniel Wright puts it: “Statistical techniques are often taught as if they were brought down from some statistical mount only to magically appear in [the software package] SPSS.”

To help address this oversight, Wright has compiled a list of ten statisticians he thinks every psychologist should know about. The list is strict in the sense that it only includes statisticians, whilst omitting psychologists, such as Jacob Cohen and Lee Cronbach, who have made significant contributions to statistical science in psychology.

Wright divides his list in three, beginning with three founding fathers of modern statistics. First up is Karl Pearson (pictured), best known to psychologists for the Pearson Correlation and Pearson’s chi-square test. He was a socialist who turned down a knighthood in 1935. His first momentous achievement was his 1932 book The Grammar of Science and he also founded the world’s first university statistics department at UCL in 1911.

Ronald Fisher was the author of Statistical Methods for Research Workers, which Wright describes as “one of the most important books of science.” Fisher was also instrumental in the development of p values in null hypothesis significance testing.

Together with Pearson’s son, Egon, Jerzy Neyman produced the framework of null and alternative hypothesis testing that dominates stats to this day. He also created the notion of confidence intervals. Neyman and Fisher were big critics of each other’s theories. After a brief spell at UCL with Fisher, Neyman moved later to Berkeley where he set up the stats department – now one of the top such departments in the world.

Wright also lists three of his statistical heroes: John Tukey of post-hoc test fame, who made major contributions in robust methods and graphing (and who coined the terms ANOVA, software and bit); Donald Rubin who has conducted influential work on effect sizes and meta-analyses; and Brad Efron who developed the computer-intensive bootstrap resampling technique.

Wright devotes the last section of his list to four statisticians who have gifted psychology particular statistical techniques: David Cox and the Box-Cox transformation; Leo Goodman and categorical data analysis; John Nelder and the Generalised Linear Model; and Robert Tibshirani and the lasso data reduction technique.

“The list is meant to introduce some of the main statistical pioneers and their important achievements in psychology,” Wright concludes. “It is hoped learning about the people behind the statistical procedures will make the procedures seem more humane than many psychologists perceive them to be.”

What do you think of Wright’s list? Is there anyone he’s overlooked?

Daniel B Wright (2009). Ten Statisticians and Their Impacts for Psychologists. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (6), 587-597. [Draft pdf via author website].

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

12 thoughts on “Ten statisticians every psychologist should know about”

  1. Francis Galton doesn't rate a mention? Strictly speaking, Florence Nightingale should be included too since she pioneered in the use of mathematical analysis in measuring medical and social trends.


  2. Anon – re who's number ten. I forgot to highlight/link John Nelder. You'll see that there are ten linked names there now.

    Anon – paper is now linked. DOI tag wasn't working which had thwarted the automating linking system I usually use.


  3. And where is CS Peirce?

    Who shredded Pearson's Grammar of Science, described a physical means of drawing random samples in the late 1800's, was cited by Ramsey (and Kenynes?) as being key in their early work on foundations of probability and inductive logic, credited with developing a philosophical justification for Neyman-Pearson Confidence Intervals by Ian Hacking, was credited with developing Fisher's randomization test by Steven Stigler [ though Don Rubin contests this until he gets specific references ] … perhaps excluded because Peirce was a colleague of William James [and died pennyless in 1914]

    Oh well nice to see an applied statistician like Rob Tibshirani making the list though

    Keith O'Rourke


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