Friday, March 25, 2016

Scientific Consensus Has Often Been Wrong

Those of us in the majority of Americans who are not "scientists" are repeatedly told that we must defer to those who are self-described as "scientists" on any question that is related to "science". Any questioning of their pronouncements is treated as a heretical attitude and the backlash makes the medieval Roman Catholic Church look like Mennonites in comparison. We are told that when the scientific community is at a consensus, defined as a majority of scientists agreeing to a particular premise on an issue, that issue is settled and no questions may be asked. I say that is bunk, that even though I am not a scientist in any sense of the word, I am hopefully observant enough to distinguish between actual science and science done with an agenda. Those who push "settled science" like global warming climate change and evolution and a universe that apparently sprang into being at the "Big Bang" but we aren't really sure where the stuff that banged came from often have a different motivation than expanding human knowledge and understanding. They are not terribly good at hiding their ulterior motivations if you take the time to look.

The reason I bring this up, a topic I have written about often in the past, is a book I am reading by Adam Cohen, Im*be*ciles. Today many people use imbecile or idiot or moron as a slur mostly against people who are not really any of those things but around a century ago those terms had specific "scientific" meaning and were used as labels for people who were deemed mentally deficient or just a simply undesirable sort of person. Here is one quote from the book I found fascinating, not just for what it had to say in the early 20th century but also for what it tells us today:
"The medical establishment not only spoke out in favor of eugenic sterilization but did so with near unanimity. No prominent medical professors or surgeons publicly opposed the sterilization movement-or if they did, they were not being heard. One survey found that every article on the subject of eugenic sterilization published in a medical journal between 1899 and 1912 endorsed the practice." (Imbeciles, p. 66)
So in the early 20th century the consensus of the medical profession was that those who are labelled mentally deficient in one way or another ought to be forcibly sterilized. The academic community was also largely unanimous on some variant of what we would call eugenics. You could just about replace the references about eugenics to references about climate change and you would be describing the current state of scientific discourse. Another deeply ironic thing we learn, although one I am not at all surprised by, is that many of the most vocal advocates of forced sterilization were also the most "progressive" or liberal members of society. Cohen points out that the strongest objection to this practice came from Roman Catholics. This shouldn't surprise anyone. Progressive icon and personal heroine to Mrs. William Jefferson Cliinton, Margaret Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood, was as vile a racist and eugenicist as you will ever find. That fact is conveniently ignored by those on the left who hold her and the bloodthirsty cult she founded as heroes of American history.

But! But! BUT! We are far more enlightened and civilized today compared to a century ago! Yeah, sure. Want to bet that the same academic and scientific communities calling for forced sterilization in the early 20th century probably bragged about how much more advanced they were than their predecessors?

My broader point is two-fold. First , the notion of "scientific consensus" is not a new one and I would suggest that history has shown in retrospect that that consensus was wrong far more than it was right. As such, simply pointing to "scientific consensus" on an argument doesn't make something true anymore so than scientific consensus one hundred years ago makes eugenics valid. The second is a caution to those who would look to the government to protect us and represent our values. The same government that is in place today was the government than interned Japanese-Americans, that made legal the forced sterilizations of thousands of citizens, that provided a legal framework to own slaves.

One of the most important traits of a healthy society is a citizenry that knows to and actually does ask difficult questions. In our increasingly ignorant and politically correct society fewer and fewer people are willing to engage in critical thinking and most of our fellow citizens are historically illiterate. Books like this are incredibly useful to the formation of a healthy, skeptical and critical mindset that is often missing in America. A full length review will follow.

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