I found myself reading about Francis Galton today. Galton was cousin of Charles Darwin, and the founder of eugenics. He coined the term. But it seems that wasn’t the only thing he had a big hand in starting up. He was also the originator of psychometric mental testing. And he was also the originator of the ideas of statistical correlation, standard deviation, and regression. And he was also something of a meteorologist, coining the term ‘anti-cyclone’, and devising the first published newspaper weather map. And he introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities.
Looking at this list of achievements, it suddenly occurred to me that they were all pseudosciences. Had Francis Galton been the founding father of pseudoscience?
Psychometric testing, which has come down to us mostly as IQ testing, has long seemed to me to be pseudoscientific. I’m not at all sure that a concept as diffuse and various as intelligence can ever be measured in a meaningful way. The idea that a single number can measure intelligence has always seemed rather crass. It’s always reminded me how, back in the 1950s and 60s, young women had their ‘vital statistics’ – bust, waist, and hips – measured. One would be told of some film starlet that their vital statistics were 36-24-36 or something, as if this was some sort useful information. Even in my hormonally-hyperactive teens, this struck me as complete nonsense. Body Mass Index – BMI – is another one of these nonsensical pseudomeasures. It’s the ratio of weight to height. And it means absolutely nothing.
Eugenics – which means ‘good breeding’ – was essentially the attempt to perfect the human race by selective breeding. The supposedly ideal type – invariably blonde and blue-eyed, somehow or other – would get every assistance in breeding. The less than ideal would be exterminated. (H/T to Rose)
These eugenic ideas, mostly developed in California it seems, were of course enthusiastically taken up by Hitler, and applied to the ‘unfit’ of Europe – Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, etc – en masse.
After the war, eugenics was declared a crime against humanity. The eugenics movement, which was powerful in the USA and Britain and Europe, vanished. Or rather, it simply renamed itself as Human Genetics, and continued as before. The new “unfit” are of course smokers and drinkers and fat people. And so now they are marginalised and excluded and demonised. Once some eugenic programme has deemed some people to be “better” than other people in some way, such exclusion and demonisation follows inevitably and automatically.
And what about statistical correlation and standard deviation and regression? Well, that’s the statistics that’s used to bombard us daily with “statistically significant” correlations between lung cancer and smoking or drinking or eating more than 3 chocolate chip cookies. It is the weapon of choice for the modern practitioners of the eugenics movement – the lifestyle healthists -. I can’t think of any other branch of mathematics used with such routine regularity to exclude and demonise whole classes of people. It’s their preferred weapon. And I always have the suspicion that there’s something deeply wrong with it, and that’s all it is: a weapon. If nothing else, setting the magic figure for “statistical significance” at 1 in 20 is completely arbitrary. It stinks.
And meteorology? What could be wrong with that? It’s quite harmless, isn’t it? But, oh wait, meteorology was the precursor to climatology. And climatology is what has given us the AGW scare.
And questionnaires? Well, what an inherently inaccurate way of measuring something. Instead of just measuring the length of a hall carpet with a ruler, you ask 50 different people how long they thought it was when they walked over it 2 or 3 years ago, and use the mean figure as its ‘length’ instead. One of the serious problems with antismoking science (and all lifestyle science) is that nothing is accurately measured. All the numbers are guesses rather than measurements: numbers of cigarettes smoked, inhaled or not inhaled, tipped or untipped. Even the subsequent causes of death – lung cancer, heart disease, etc – are guesses as well. No way is that science. It doesn’t even come close.
And they all go back to just one man, it seems: Francis Galton. He seems to have been the author of all the plagues of the 20th century.
What makes them pseudosciences? I suppose one way of putting it is that they try to provide numbers for things which can’t be measured. Take that ‘vital statistics’ thing. It’s trying to measure beauty. And I don’t think that can be done. So also IQ and intelligence. That can’t be done either. And forecasting the weather is all but impossible more than two or three days ahead. A slight change in the initial conditions can produce a completely different result. And the ‘eu’ in eugenics is trying to define what is ‘good’ among different racial types, and different lifestyle habits.* In the end all it can ever do is to express prejudices. And statistics, at least as it is used by the eugenicists, is a way of getting (or contriving to get) a single accurate number out of a lot of inaccurate numbers.
Galton seemed to have set out to measure things that other scientists weren’t measuring (perhaps because they were not so foolish as he was). He set out to measure things that were vague and amorphous and nebulous. And perhaps he just set out to measure things which could not be measured. He tried to do something that simply couldn’t be done. And as a consequence, all the ‘measurements’ are wrong. Because they’re not measurements.
One hallmark of pseudoscience is that it doesn’t make any progress. Has there been much progress in meteorology in the last 50 years? None that I’ve noticed. The forecasts are just as vague as they ever were. And just as likely to be wrong. And once smoking was identified as the ’cause’ of lung cancer 60 or more years ago, the amount of progress in lung cancer research has been approximately zero. No cure. No prevention. Nothing but ever-mounting hysteria.
For myself, I tend to think of pseudoscience as anything that isn’t physics, or firmly based on physics. As far as I’m concerned, all psychology is pseudoscience. All sociology is pseudoscience. A great deal of medicine is pseudoscience. And economics too. Along with astrology and numerology and all the other usual suspects. Pseudoscience is what happens when things can’t be measured. Or nobody knows what to measure. Physicists work in a narrow arena where they can measure things like mass and length and time with great accuracy. And they don’t use questionnaires. Never. But there are all sorts of things that physicists don’t know how to measure. So mostly they do the decent thing, and don’t try. But the pseudoscientists declare that they can measure them. And so the empire of science is surrounded by a hinterland of rival pseudosciences, like a beautiful city surrounded by slums.
It’s all still around. Including full-blown eugenics. This evening I was listening to Professor David Marsland, arguing that the mentally and morally unfit should be sterilised (Yes. And on the BBC too. Although they tried to keep him at a safe distance with their bargepoles. ). He is professor of Sociology and Health Sciences at Brunel University. And sociology is bollocks, of course. And so are the ‘health sciences’. And what’s “morally unfit” anyway? I bet that means that they smoke or drink or eat chocolate chip cookies. But, hey, good to know we have home-grown Nazis like this around, eh? And lots of them too, 60 years after we thought we’d defeated the Third Reich.
And that’s another feature of pseudoscience. The solutions are invariably drastic. The unfit must be sterilised or exterminated. Smoking must be banned everywhere. All the cattle must be shot. All the potential swine flu victims must be inoculated. Carbon dioxide must be eliminated. And they’re always massively destructive and wasteful and murderous and immoral. If nothing else, this alone is a pretty firm indicator that they haven’t a clue what they’re doing. The Precautionary Principle they wheel out really means this: we don’t know what we’re doing, so we’re going to totally overdo it. We don’t know how to boil an egg, but 14 hours should do the trick.
The baleful influence of eugenics is everywhere. It falls particularly heavily on women. There’s a perfect size: 36-24-36. Anything more than that, and you’re “obese”. Anything less than that, and you’re “anorexic”. Women can’t win, trying to stay on the knife edge between obesity and anorexia. And the same is happening to men. The ideal man is now supposed to be loaded with muscle like Charles Atlas. Anything less, and he’s a weed, anything more and he’s a slob. And it’s entirely about appearances. Eugenics isn’t about health: it’s about what people look like. Mustn’t have a big nose like Jews. Mustn’t have a black skin. Mustn’t have pallid white skin either. Mustn’t be too fat. Or too thin. Must have plenty of head hair. But no underarm hair. Or nose hair. Mustn’t have a cigarette dangling out of your mouth. Must have perfect teeth, whiter than white. It’s utterly superficial. It’s really just fashion. Only failure to live up to its demands could mean extermination, or sterilisation. Which is why everybody tries so hard, I guess. Even to the point of serial cosmetic surgery. They don’t want to be exterminated because they’ve got a few wrinkles, or inappropriate leg hair.
* I just realised. The “eu” in eugenics is the same “eu” that’s in the European Union EU. And “eu” is Greek for “good”. Sorry. I’m slow this way.
And for chrissakes, there’s even an “eu” in pseudoscience.