Imagine that there is a new scientific theory that warns of an impending crisis, and points to a way out.
This theory quickly draws support from leading scientists, politicians and celebrities around the world. Research is funded by distinguished philanthropies, and carried out at prestigious universities. The crisis is reported frequently in the media. The science is taught in college and high school classrooms.
I don’t mean global warming. I’m talking about another theory, which rose to prominence a century ago.
Its supporters included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill. It was approved by Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, who ruled in its favor. The famous names who supported it included Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone; activist Margaret Sanger; botanist Luther Burbank; Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University; the novelist H. G. Wells; the playwright George Bernard Shaw; and hundreds of others. Nobel Prize winners gave support. Research was backed by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. The Cold Springs Harbor Institute was built to carry out this research, but important work was also done at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. Legislation to address the crisis was passed in states from New York to California.
These efforts had the support of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the National Research Council. It was said that if Jesus were alive, he would have supported this effort.
All in all, the research, legislation and molding of public opinion surrounding the theory went on for almost half a century. Those who opposed the theory were shouted down and called reactionary, blind to reality, or just plain ignorant. But in hindsight, what is surprising is that so few people objected.
Today, we know that this famous theory that gained so much support was actually pseudoscience. The crisis it claimed was nonexistent. And the actions taken in the name of theory were morally and criminally wrong. Ultimately, they led to the deaths of millions of people.
The theory was eugenics, and its history is so dreadful — and, to those who were caught up in it, so embarrassing — that it is now rarely discussed. But it is a story that should be well know to every citizen, so that its horrors are not repeated…