How to avoid doing eugenics: Adam Cohen’s “Imbeciles”

I have been managing to get some reading done in the last month or so and to build up a record for myself of having actually finished things, I’m dumping some rambling thoughts on Adam Cohen’s book Imbeciles here. Warning: This post talks a lot about eugenics based on IQ.

This book is very very very effective at getting you to mistrust authority if, like me, you tend to put your faith in edifices that are supposed to trend toward justice. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the Supreme Court cases that Cohen brings up where the Court made a straight-up evil decision, and I guess I should have, but we hear a lot about cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia (evidence–these were the only two Supreme Court cases I could name off the top of my head) and less about say Lum v. Rice, 30 years prior to Brown v. Board, which the Court ruled that it was totally fine to disallow a Chinese girl from going to high school with whites, which is itself a fascinating and horrifying case in terms of horizontal relations between people of colour in early-20th-c America because apparently the defense was essentially “Okay, but she’s not Black, so what’s your problem?”

I also gather from talking to others about this book that other people had a better sense of the scale of eugenics around this time period, but I definitely was not aware that, for instance, Harvard and Stanford taught classes on eugenics, or that for a time eugenics was scientific consensus even though it seemed like the science was really really fudged. Eventually truth won out and other scientists started interrogating data more carefully, but the bad science was sufficient to convince a generation of lawmakers that America was being dragged down by “feebleminded” individuals reproducing at a disproportionate rate, even when it seems so clear in retrospect that a) it makes no sense that should have suddenly started happening in 1920 to lead to the apocalypse that the proponents envisioned and b) something is wrong with your test if you can judge as huge a population of the States as they did “feebleminded” when nobody had ever, like, noticed before that apparently a third of the population or something had the mental age of a 9-year-old. You’d think we would have noticed.

I’m a person who tends to trust in scientific consensus where I can find it, and this really concerned me! I don’t know how early the rumbles of “this is bad science though?” started coming from people who understood genetics, but Cohen writes as though there was a period of about a decade where the foremost people in the relevant discipline all thought this super unethical thing was totally necessary for the greater good. And as consequentialists we have to sort of trust in what experts tell us will be the consequences, sometimes; when it comes to large-scale decisions it’s impossible for each of us to individually make the choice that will lead to the best consequence without the input of people who have intimate knowledge of what the different options entail. But the experts can be wrong, too, especially the “experts” who write extremely popular books and prosecute court cases.

And there’s a maddening, farcical, pathetic story near the centre of this case–the prosecutor, Audrey Strode, who Cohen describes as the most infuriatingly Lawful Neutral person in the whole mess. Basically, this guy drafted the legislation to permit doctors to sterilize the “unfit”, at the request of the doctor (Priddy) who wanted this to be allowed in Virginia. But it’s really, really bad legislation, in ways that he absolutely knew would break the law if somebody really wanted it to be broken. Cohen argues that he was essentially building the exhaust port into the Death Star. Cohen thinks he didn’t really believe in eugenics. And then he prosecuted the case, because Priddy asked him to. And then they went to the Supreme Court. And then they legalized eugenics in Virginia. And then they forcibly sterilized hundreds of women. It’s just really stunning to think that somebody might have started out the case thinking “I’ll break this from the inside” or even “there’s no way this will get too far,” and ended up being a part of something so terrible, and never really dared to take a stand and divorce himself from it, maybe because It Was His Job, or he liked the doctor, or he wanted to argue in front of the Supreme Court.

What I took away from this book is that allowing yourself to believe things that don’t make sense because they suit your sense of what should be right can be really, really dangerous. Something to remember when I’m tempted to keep defending something that sounds good and right which I think in my heart may not be true, which has happened more than I am proud to admit as I poke my head outside the ethics cyberbubble I was in in my teens. I feel like if everyone in this case had looked really hard at their evidence they would have been unable to avoid seeing that it was straight-up-and-down false. The central quote of the case–“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” from the decision in this case written by the unbelievably Lawful Evil judge Oliver Wendell Holmes–is literally based on a lie, because the “third generation” he’s talking about was like a six-month-old baby and their evidence for her being an “imbecile” was a nurse saying she seemed, like, oh, I don’t know, somehow lethargic. That’s pretty goddamn scary.

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