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Eugenics: The Dark Side of Flawed Ideas About Fitness

Lately, we’ve seen two scientific journals promoting idea that people with obesity are intellectually and morally inferior. This is not OK. Smart people come in all sizes. So do honest and dishonest people. These papers might seem innocent on the surface. But they are nothing but exercises in fishing for correlations. Humans have a history of doing nasty things by drawing inferences from correlations. So it’s worth a quick look at eugenics and the dark side of flawed ideas about fitness.

“Human Betterment”

This idea has ancient roots. Plato suggested that selective mating could produce a guardian class. In ancient Sparta, council elders examined the fitness of every infant to determine if it should live or die. Much later, near the end of the 19th century, the eugenics movement arose in America. It was all about human betterment.

David Starr Jordan was the founding president of Stanford University. In 1899, he delivered a landmark essay on racial segregation and purity:  A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit. From this platform, he raised huge sums of money to finance the Eugenics Record Office. At Cold Spring Harbor, the Carnegie Institute organized it. Thus, eugenics took on the appearance of scientific legitimacy.

The ERO produced reports, articles, charts, and genetic information to serve as a scientific basis for eugenics. Then they built on this foundation to advocate for eugenics laws. From those laws came forced sterilization of persons deemed unfit. In America, this was so popular and widespread that it persisted into the 1970s.

A Darker Turn in Germany

Americans had sterilized thousands of people by the early 1930s. So Nazi Germany decided this would be a good idea. American eugenics served as a blueprint. Lulu Miller explains:

“In 1933, Germany passed a law to allow the sterilization of what would eventually become hundreds of thousands of people. An American eugenicist, Joseph DeJarnette, said ‘the Germans are beating us at our own game.’”

 Weak Science, Generalizations, and Ethical Lapses

Researchers and research journals have ethical obligations. When they publish weak correlation studies to suggest that a group of people might be inferior, they are failing a test of ethics. This is a pattern we have seen before. Yet two journals have fallen into it again.

Three months have passed since editors of Scientific Reports posted a notice of concern about an article in their journal. It asserts that people with obesity are dishonest. But they have not yet acted to retract or correct it.

Worse yet, editors of Lifestyle Medicine appear to be defending a paper that asserts people with obesity have low IQs. This is bad science and bad ethics. Both of these journals should admit and correct their mistakes without delay.

For a fascinating view of how the founding president of Stanford laid the groundwork for eugenics in Nazi Germany, we recommend the following podcast.

Eugenics Congress Logo, illustration from the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921 / Wikimedia Commons

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November 2, 2020