In 1977 independent scholar Allan Chase (1914-93) published The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism, a lengthy, critical historical account of scientific–Chase would say “pseudoscientific”–rationales to support the division of humanity into two “races”–a small, healthy, wealthy, educable elite and the rest who are vulnerable, poor, and herediarily inferior (Chase, xv). One chapter, entitled, “A few false correlations = a few million real deaths,” focused on pellgara, a disease that became rare in the United States after World War II. During the first four decades of the twentieth century, however, pellgara was the recorded cause of one hundred thousand deaths, even though its cause was discovered in 1915. This post presents a problem-based learning activity that builds off Chase’s account.
Start by digesting a succinct summary of Chase’s account, written by Jan Coe. Then let us explore where we get to by asking three linked questions. [On the wiki for this case, students insert contributions below each question.]
Actions: What can we do on the basis of Chase’s account–What actions or changes could we pursue if we accept the Chase’s claim that tens of thousands of deaths from pellagra occurred because eugenic science prevented the real cause from being acted on?
- Invoke this historical case to promote the importance of evaluating scientific and more specifically medical reports properly before policy is based on them.
- Invoke this historical case to advocate skepticism or, at least, careful scrutiny of research that claims a hereditary basis for social inequalities.
- Invoke this historical case to promote paying more attention to preventive medicine and public health than to genetic explanations of disease.
- Tease out the different conceptions of causality in epidemiology and public health in this case and use this in teaching.
Questions for further Inquiry: What more do we want to know in order to:
clarify what we could do?
clarify who “we” are, i.e., which people are interested in the actions?
understand more and perhaps revise Chase’s knowledge claims?
- How and how much did eugenic science influence social responses to pellagra?
- In what ways did black/white racism influence social responses to pellagra?
- What other aspects of the social context prevented Goldberger’s discovery being turned into disease-preventing measures?
- Is it necessary to identify the proximate cause for disease-preventing measures to be taken?
- In what ways was Goldberger’s research influenced by his social context?
- Who was Chase and who was he trying to influence through his writing?
Knowledge claims: what particular factual statements and interpretations that Chase makes can be teased out from the summary (and then explored using the two questions above)?
[The Knowledge claims-Action-Questions framework is described further at http://sicw.wikispaces.umb.edu/FrameworkForExchanges.]