Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Eugenics and Junk Science

Over at National Review Online, there is an article on the recent Louisiana law regarding science education. What interests me is what the author says about eugenics:
During the first decades of the 20th century, the nation’s leading biologists at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford, as well by members of America’s leading scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were all devoted eugenicists. By the time the crusade had run its course, some 60,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will in an
effort to keep us from sinning against Darwin’s law of natural selection, which
Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin dubbed “the great law of evolution and

Today, science is typically portrayed as self-correcting, but it took decades for most
evolutionary biologists to disassociate themselves from the junk science of eugenics. For years, the most consistent critics of eugenics were traditionalist Roman Catholics, who were denounced by scientists for letting their religion stand in the way of scientific progress. The implication was that religious people had no right to speak out on public issues involving science...

...It is also short-sighted. The history of the eugenics crusade shows that religiously motivated citizens can play a useful role in evaluating the public claims of the
scientific community. It is worth pointing out that unlike such “progressive”
states as California, Louisiana was spared a eugenics-inspired forced-sterilization statute largely because of the implacable opposition of its Roman Catholic clergy.

What does it mean to call eugenics "junk science?" Junk science generally means science that is not good as science. It is "science" that doesn't do what science is supposed to do - give us an accurate appreciation of the empirical state of world, an appreciation that is generally vindicated by successful practical application. Newton's physics was good science because it accurately rendered the physical character of the solar system and allowed us to fly to the moon and back. But Newton's science, as science, has nothing to say about whether going to the moon is a good or bad thing. Similarly, eugenics, as a science, is not junk science. It works. Eugenics is simply the selective breeding of the human race as forcibly imposed by government. Mankind has been successfully breeding animals for thousands of years; making it work is not "rocket science." The question of whether we should impose eugenics is similar to the question of whether we should go to the moon; it isn't a question that can even be addressed by science, but only by philosophy (in the broadest sense, including political philosophy.) Science can tell us whether going to the moon or conducting eugenics is possible and practical (they both are), but not whether they should be pursued. In other words, sterilizing 60,000 Americans isn't wrong because it is bad science (it isn't); it is wrong for philosophical reasons that transcend science altogether.

I argued against Jim Manzi that it is a mistake to base the case against eugenics on scientific grounds, or grounds of general ignorance, as though eugenics is wrong merely because the science is not (yet) good enough. This concedes that eugenics is fine in principle if we could just get the technical details right. And the fact is that the science is already plenty good enough. It has been good enough for hundreds of years.

The real problem behind eugenics is the inversion of science and philosophy; the view that science rather than philosophy is the final arbiter of truth and our knowledge of reality. If science is the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement, then science is self-justifying; for what lesser intellectual endeavor (philosophy, for instance) dare criticize the grand scientific program as construed by scientists?

But science is not self-justifying; it must be justified in terms of philosophy and, yes, possibly religion. John West says that Roman Catholics were denounced for letting their religious beliefs stand in the way of scientific progress. That states the situation nicely. "Progress" is not itself a scientific term; it is a philosophical interpretation of the movement of history. (The Soviet Union and the West, for instance, differed on the meaning of "progress.") When scientists go from declaring the empirical state of the world to making claims about the character of history, including scientific history, then a philosopher or priest knows they have overstepped their bounds. It is at just such a point that religious beliefs should "stand in the way of scientific progress", for there is no such thing as "scientific progress", only scientific results philosophically or religiously construed.

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