A litany of bad science

Trumpism is nothing new. Fevered racism has been simmering in the US for a long, long time. What’s embarrassing is how Daniel Okrent explains how much well educated scientists at famous institutions contributed to the toxic stew. It’s not southern rednecks who necessarily are full of ignorance and hate; genteel northern scholars with bad ideas had more power and influence.

Also note how the social sciences have been scorned all along.

Together, they [a gang of prestigious scientists] popularized “racial eugenics,” a junk science that made ethnically based racism respectable. “The day of the sociologist is passing,” said the Harvard professor Robert DeCourcy Ward, “and the day of the biologist has come.” The biologists and their publicists achieved what their political allies had failed to accomplish for 30 years: enactment of a law stemming the influx of Jews, Italians, Greeks and other eastern and southern Europeans. “The need of restriction is manifest,” The New York Times declared in an editorial, for “American institutions are menaced” by “swarms of aliens.”

People with no knowledge of sociology are always eager to shut down sociology departments because they keep on digging up hard data to show that racists are wrong. But wait — when a sociologist says bigoted things, then we can listen to them. Also, I guess people of Slavic descent weren’t considered white enough?

Writing about Slavic immigrants, the sociologist Edward A. Ross of the University of Wisconsin — later the national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union — declared, they “are immune to certain kinds of dirt. They can stand what would kill a white man.” The president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology said newcomers from eastern and southern Europe were “vast masses of filth” who were “living like swine.”

Racial classifications were so confusing. Italians were Asiatic?

The Washington Post editorialized that 90 percent of Italians coming to the United States were “the degenerate spawn” of “Asiatic hordes.” A Boston philanthropist, Joseph Lee, his city’s leading supporter of progressive causes, explained to friends why he became the single largest financial backer of the anti-immigrant campaign: His concern, he wrote, was that without a restriction law, Europe would be “drained of Jews — to its benefit no doubt but not to ours.”

Cold Spring Harbor has a deep history of aiding and abetting racism — removing that stain was one of the reasons James Watson got the boot there, although that doesn’t explain why they hired him in the first place.

The “biological” justifications for this nativism were first developed in Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island, in laboratories financed by the widow of the railroad baron E.H. Harriman. (One of her goals, Mary Harriman said, was preventing “the decay of the American race.”) The laboratory’s head, the zoologist Charles B. Davenport, took the ideas of the British gentleman scientist Francis Galton — who had coined the word “eugenics” in 1883 — welded them to a gross misunderstanding of the genetic discoveries of Gregor Mendel, and concluded that the makeup of the nation’s population could be improved by the careful control of human breeding. One of the first steps, he believed, was to impose new controls on open immigration.

I read “The Passing of the Great Race” a few decades ago, and recall it as awful pseudoscience of the sort that might fit in at the Daily Stormer nowadays. I should re-read it, I suppose, but the memory is painful and infuriating.

At first, Davenport wished to bar the immigration only of people afflicted by specific disorders — epileptics, the “feebleminded” and others of similarly troublesome (to Davenport) disability. But soon he was caught up in a racialist whirlwind initiated by “The Passing of the Great Race,” a book by Madison Grant, the founder of the Bronx Zoo and the era’s most prominent conservationist. A bilious stew of dubious history, bogus anthropology and completely unfounded genetic theory, Grant’s work persuaded Davenport and others that the American bloodstream was threatened not by suspect individuals, but by entire ethnic groups.

Never forget how entrenched anti-semitism was and is.

Grant was not an actual scientist. But Henry Fairfield Osborn, a world-famous paleontologist and his closest friend, definitely was. Osborn, who once expressed his opposition to the extension of the Westchester Parkway near his country estate because it would bring thousands of “East Side Jews” to the area, presided over the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years, and made that institution the beating heart of the combined eugenics and anti-immigration movement. “I am convinced,” said Osborn, that the “spiritual, physical, moral and intellectual structure” of individuals is “based on racial characteristics.” It wasn’t a matter of ethnic bias, he said — it was “cold-blooded” science.

Good news for me — I’m one of those Nordics. That means I get to sneer at everyone with ancestry from a more southern country. That’s what this is all about, right, ranking people in arbitrary hierarchies so you always have someone lesser to spit on?

“Whether we like to admit it or not,” Grant wrote, “the result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting” to the “lower type.” Lower than Nordics were the questionable “Alpines.” Lower than the “Alpines” were the woeful “Mediterraneans.” And, he concluded, “the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

We’ve still got people today babbling about IQ tests. Thanks, scientists!

Other scholars rallied to the cause. Robert M. Yerkes — his name immortalized today at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta — conducted a severely flawed series of tests of American servicemen purporting to establish the intellectual inferiority of eastern and southern Europeans. Charles W. Gould, a lawyer in New York, sponsored “A Study of American Intelligence,” by Carl C. Brigham, a young Princeton psychologist (and later the inventor of the SAT). Brigham’s conclusion: “There can be no doubt that recent history has shown a movement of inferior peoples or inferior representatives of peoples to this country.”

It’s good to be reminded now and then that all the pseudo-scientific respectability given racist science today was granted by bigoted assholes with science degrees yesterday.


  1. F.O. says

    And on this side of the isle, we had the Fascists telling Italians that we are largely “pure Aryan race”.
    Why are we humans so fucking stupid?

  2. Paolo says

    I honestly wonder how Italian immigrants to the US could be the spawn of Asiatic hordes: the last Asiatic horde to visit us were the Huns 1500 years ago, and they barely reached Rome while our immigrants were overwhelmingly from Southern Italy. It’s also interesting to note that there’s actually been (and still exists) a reverse racism in Italy against Northern Europeans, along the lines of “when we had the Roman Empire and the Renaissance you were still barbarians”, where the “you” really means anyone north of the Alps.

  3. pilgham says

    Okrent is author of Last Call, about Prohibition. He writes quite a bit about how passing Prohibition was fueled by racism and xenophobia as well as the Temperance movement. The WCTU was pretty well sidelined by such luminaries as the ASL and the Klan. A few years later it became obvious that Prohibition wasn’t going to work, so Congress simply passed a law to roll back demographics to what they were in 1890.

    Okrent has a forthcoming book on immigration that I have on pre-order.

  4. says

    I wonder how many of “the intellectually superior” servicemen in the Yerkes study were actually of “inferior” descent, whose parents had Anglicised their names when they immigrated.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I can’t find the reference at the moment, but do recall reading how the US pseudoscience attacking eastern Europeans (Slavs and Jews alike) became highly influential and often cited in Germany from 1933 to 1945.

    Apparently much of this originated in the earlier (late 1800s) influx of Poles, Czechs, and others who brought with them the “disease” of strong and sophisticated labor unionism. This created a decided inconvenience to the poobahs of the Gilded Age, who organized their academia/media minions to respond in the racist language Americans responded to best.

  6. psanity says

    And it’s good to be reminded now and then of the sort of people who were at the root of the make-or-break standardized testing that infects our society and turns reasonable knowledge of learning and teaching inside out and upside down.

  7. pilgham says

    @6 I don’t blame the people giving the tests and the tests can be useful. It’s the people who take the raw data and twist it like pipe cleaners into shapes to illustrate their books. The Bell Curve springs to mind.

  8. psanity says

    Yes, standardized tests can be very useful, as they were always meant to be, for separating the sheep from the goats. And so conveniently applicable to whatever the currently fashionable sheep/goats situation may be.

  9. magistramarla says

    I read this and I remember my husband’s comment about hybrid vigor. He learned the term when he was studying for his degree in biology, and carried it over when he kept noticing that children of mixed races were often more intelligent and beautiful than their parents. I certainly saw evidence of this when I was teaching, as well as in some of our own grandchildren.
    So, PZ and other Biology experts in the horde, was he right about hybrid vigor?

  10. hemidactylus says

    I’m aware of the problematic history of the progressive movement which intersects with folks like Grant in ugly ways. But fast forwarding to the present the notion of interventionist technocracy is looking better and better everyday Trump is president. I commend careerists willing to risk it all. Marxists call it the administrative state. Trump talks of a “deep state” conjuring images of the Turkish way. I just see a continuity pool of talent. Didn’t the State Dept lose some careerists with valuable experience in specialties?




    But given that, whatever it is going on in the California Redwoods is still creepy:


    And that takes us back to Madison Grant and his cadre of herd managers. Weird stuff.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    magistramarla @9:

    he kept noticing that children of mixed races were often more intelligent and beautiful than their parents.

    “Beautiful” is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m not sure how you notice, never mind quantify, “more intelligent”. Aren’t we told that there is more genetic variation within so-called races than there is between them? How does “hybrid vigour” even work within a species as genetically undiverse as we are?

    That said, I’ve long thought that maximizing mixing of the perceived races would be a good thing, if only to give the racist fuckers a smaller base.

  12. OptimalCynic says

    A timely reminder that race is a social construct and not a biological reality.