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Letter from Walter Lippmann to Robert Yerkes, 1923.
Robert M. Yerkes Papers. Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

Matthew Baum 09, Intellectuals and Eugenics

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Before Yerkes published his Army Mental Tests, he sent the manuscript to Walter Lippmann, a prominent journalist and sociologist. This letter contains Lippmann’s response: “your data are insufficient and your definitions altogether too broad. Such statements, made with the prestige of science, leave you open to the gravest misunderstandings.”

As Lippmann explained one year earlier in his 1922 book Public Opinion, “except on a few subjects where our knowledge is great, we cannot choose between true and false accounts.” Accordingly, the people have learned to trust the prestige of science and to rely on the expert in order to form public opinion about these subjects. Lippmann was concerned that if experts like Yerkes became enthralled by an ideal, then they would cease to see what was supported by the objective data and begin to see what they wanted to see. In this case, too enamored with the principles of heredity, Yerkes failed to account for any confounding variable when he put forward his broad theories of racial differences in mental ability, as in his idea of the “feeblemindedness of Irishmen.” When Yerkes and experts of the time lost their disinterested approach to genetics, insufficient data and broad definitions were stamped, notarized and recommended as support for immigration restriction, sterilization, or worse.