Why “Settled Science” Is A Myth (And Why Just A Little History Shows That)

To see how science can change and evolve, look at the theory of eugenics, which held sway over much of Western thought from the 1870s through the 1930s and beyond. Eugenics held that good or bad characteristics were passed on through heredity, and that extended to features like criminality, insanity, mental deficiency, sexual deviations, alcoholism, epilepsy, or vagrancy. All were aspects of “degeneracy” that apparently had a close connection to each other—at least they all seemed to manifest in the same degenerate blood-lines. Eugenics meant encouraging the breeding of “good” human stock, while discouraging or preventing the spread of the bad seed by means of selective breeding and sterilization. In practical terms, eugenics affected approaches to education, social welfare and criminal justice, among many other things. It also had a profound impact on religious thinkers, which is a whole other story.

The lessons of eugenics were (seemingly) confirmed by the intelligence tests that were very widely applied, and which we now understand to have been horribly flawed in conception and execution. In some versions, these notions were applied to specific races, with conclusions that mightily buttressed White Supremacy. During those long decades, just try and find credentialed scientists who actually did proclaim the biological equality of races, or who denied that Africans represented an extremely low or marginal form of humanity.

Few today would deny that eugenics was a dreadful and pernicious idea, which blighted the lives of millions. But the issue of definition is critical. Today we call it a “pseudo-science,” to stress the error of its conclusions, and the deeply unreliable methods by which the theory was established and tested. Eugenics was indeed wrong, lethally so, but in its day, it absolutely must be described, simply, as a science, precisely because it was so very widely believed to be solid and unchallengeable. To say that it was once a science does not mean that is was anything but worthless, but definitions do matter. Read more»

Philip Jenkins, “Science is Real, Sort of” (January 4, 2021) (HT: Oldlife)


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One comment

  1. Developed right along side of eugenics was William Sheldon’s somatotyping and personality theory. Both were equally bad ideas. The trouble is that every time one of these “scientists” come up with theories like these there are whole cadres of people who want to jump on the band wagon. Having read Trueman’s latest book recently, it’s easy to see how the developments in philosophy, poetry, and psychiatry over the past few centuries coupled with a bad fusion of several of them in a barbaric sixth decade of the most recent one have gotten culture to the point where it is toxic toward almost anything except what a small number of individuals want everyone else to believe and practice.

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