Monday, February 11, 2008

If conservatives really, really hate being called fascists ... #6

-- by Dave

... then maybe they ought to quit talking like them.

... Maybe they should give up their ongoing fondness for eugenics -- the once-popular pseudo-science that gave the Nazis the "scientific" veneer for their ongoing project of national purgation for any "undesirable" elements. This included, of course, not just "inferior" races and ethnic groups, but the mentally ill or developmentally disabled, even "defectives" such as the hearing-impaired.

The most famous instance of this is the ardent conservative adoption of The Bell Curve as legitimate science. Even today, 14 years since its publication, you can still find an endless procession of right-wing apologists for its manifestly bad science, including, notably, Jonah Goldberg, who called criticism of Murray "unfair" and referred to his "elan and sophistication" and later called him "a friend."

Maybe that was why Murray, in fact, wrote a nice blurb for the back cover of Liberal Fascism. Which, oddly enough, devotes an entire chapter to the subject of eugenics -- arguing that the existence of eugenics' "progressive" elements somehow substantiated his claim that "fascism is and always has been a phenomenon of the left".

And yet there's little doubt that in fact, The Bell Curve is essentially eugenicist text, arguing for discrete government policies that would affect genetic outcomes. In finding that poor minorities were likely doomed to become "permanent wards of the states," the authors also recommended the elimination of welfare policies that "encourage" poor women to have babies:
We can imagine no recommendation for using the government to manipulate fertility that does not have dangers. But this highlights the problem: The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women. If the United States did as much to encourage high-IQ women to have babies as it now does to encourage low-IQ women, it would rightly be described as engaging in aggressive manipulation of fertility. The technically precise description of America's fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended. (p. 548)

In other words, it advocated a kind of reverse social engineering by defunding programs that "encouraged" poor black women to have children -- eugenics by deprivation.

Meanwhile, over at National Review, you could find some of Jonah Goldberg's colleagues holding forth recently on the virtues of eugenics. John Derbyshire kicked it off:
Private, commercial eugenics is here, though. It already has a foot in the door, & pretty soon it'll be sprawled on your living-room couch. My children (probably) and my grandchildren (certainly) will practice eugenics.

Andrew Stuttaford chimed in:
Derb, you're absolutely right that this is an issue that will soon (again) be with us, and you're also absolutely correct that the horrified cry of "eugenics" should not, as is too often the case, be allowed to conclude the discussion then and there. Of course, outside the lunatic fringe, nobody can deny that the bestial excesses carried out in the first half of the last century in the name of eugenics (or, more often, junk eugenics) were not only a disgrace, but a warning for the future. At the same time, to argue that this should make the whole science a taboo is an idea that belongs, alongside poor, deluded Wiliam Jennings Bryan, in the dustbin of history. Like almost any science, eugenics can be used for good and for bad, the question is who is to define which is which.

Pretty soon, there was an entire section section devoted to the ongoing discussion, which also drew in Ramesh Ponoru, making similar defenses.

This isn't particularly new for National Review. Back in 2000, Matt Ridley wrote a long exegesis about some of the supposed virtues of eugenics, which had this as its thesis:
The tragedy of that story lies not in the science behind eugenics, but in the politics: It is the coercion that was wrong.

Well, it is true that the horrors of eugenics manifested themselves when put into action by various states -- whether the Nazi Nuremberg Laws and the Holocaust that they eventually produced, or American social experiments involving the mentally disabled. Some of the most inhuman things were given a clinical face. See, for example, the chart below, which showed which kinds of marriages were permissible and which were "verboten" under the Nuremberg Laws:

Indeed, Goldberg in Liberal Fascism (p. 245) offers a similar argument about what was wrong with eugenics in defending The Bell Curve:
Yes, they focused on issues of classic concern to eugenicists -- the heritability of intelligence and its distribution among races -- but their argument was 180 degrees opposote from real eugenics, which means using state power to improve the racial, genetic, or biological health of the community.

But it's simply not accurate to say that the only thing wrong with eugenics was the state coercion behind it. More fundamentally, what was wrong with eugenics -- and indeed, what made the state coercion not merely wrong but a catastrophic travesty -- was its science.

As I've explained previously:
Actually, it's important to understand that the state coercion was wrong, but so was the "science" of eugenics -- in important ways that have to do with the nature of science itself. That is, its "data" and underlying observations were predicated on biases that rendered its outcomes in a predictably biased fashion; which is to say, it was less a science than a reinforcement of bigotry dressed up in academic clothing.

Eugenics was no more a serious "science" than phrenology, which posited that the shape and features of the human skull could reveal all kinds of behavioral tendencies. (Indeed, phrenology drew much of its data from eugenicists.) So at least a portion of the tragedy has to do with the lives that were ruined by the choices made for them by well-meaning people misinformed by a bogus non-science, within the public and the private spheres.

What Derbyshire and his Cornermates thereafter describe as "eugenics," that is, mate selection and prenatal genetic manipulation, is simple genetics. And all of the ensuing discussion, insofar as it recognizes that there are real limits to what can be accomplished through mate selection, is more usefully described within the very real science of genetics and not the pseudo-science of eugenics.

What the example of eugenics demonstrates most clearly is this: Science perverted for ideological reasons produces travesties. If only the defenders of "intelligent design" and the so-called "skeptics" of global warming would pay heed.

[A note about this series.]

No comments: