Today’s Settled Science Becomes Tomorrow’s Poppycock
Science says… Don’t let those inferior people reproduce!
What do phlogiston, the miasma theory, and eugenics all have in common?
Each, once upon a time, was Settled Science. And each is now considered poppycock.
“Phlogiston” was a substance which scientists in the 17th century thought was contained in combustible bodies and released during combustion. So when you burned a lump of coal, it lost phlogiston. This theory died out by the end of the 18th century.
Phlogiston, in fact, does not exist.
Miasma theory, over many centuries, stated that diseases were caused by “bad air,” or “miasma,” given off by rotting organic matter. By 1880 it had been demonstrated that diseases are caused by germs. Stinky air can’t hurt you unless there are germs floating around in it.
And eugenics! Eugenics claimed that all the troubles of the world were due to allowing inferior people to breed, and not getting enough breeding out of superior people. Boy, howdy, was this ever Settled Science! Everybodywho mattered–scientists, heads of state, judges, philosophers, literary giants, all the smartest people in the world–believed in eugenics, and the unlimited progress of the human race via selective breeding. Well, at least not allowing “the feeble-minded,” criminals, or the poor to breed. Even here in America, a lot of defenseless individuals were sterilized, by court order, in the mistaken belief that eugenics was true. And anyone who dared question it, was pilloried, scorned, and denounced as an enemy of the people. As “anti-science,” if you like.
Unfortunately for eugenics, Heinrich Himmler and the rest of the Nazis gave it a really bad reputation when they tried to put its recommendations into rigorous practice: so after WWII it was kind of hard to find anyone who would admit he’d ever supported eugenics. But it was still floating around in school textbooks during the 1950s.
Did I mention that one of the cornerstones of eugenics was the insistent claim that certain races are intractably inferior–yeah, whole races–and ought to be kept from reproducing?
And so, we learn from history that today’s Settled Science is tomorrow’s poppycock. Just because a scientific doctrine lasts a long time doesn’t mean it lasts forever.
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