Second Thoughts


It’s the original sin of measurement and testing. Our Curse of Cain. Our Cross to Bear.

Of all of the controversies included in Historical and Conceptual Foundations, eugenics may be the one most directly related to testing and the use of tests. It is also the controversy that receives the most direct attention in the book. [Whenever you can, Count.] In addition to five other listings in the index, it receives its own section of nearly six full pages under the gripping title, The Horror of Eugenics.

Briggs lays out the story of the 1924 Virginia Sterilization Act, viewed by many as a blueprint and test case for eugenics. He presents its text in full and describes the application of the law to an 18-year-old woman, Carrie Buck, through to the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell.  Briggs also includes the oft-quoted, inflammatory excerpt from the majority decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The court accepted these arguments and returned an 8-1 decision upholding the law. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision and had no second thoughts:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Jarring words indeed, and they were regarded as such in 1927. Words that bring the “horror of eugenics” to the forefront. It is not the words of Justice Holmes, however, that I want to focus on in this post.

Rather, as I think about our society and the future of testing it is the sentence that Briggs used to introduce the quote that piqued my interest.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision and had no second thoughts” (p. 126)

No second thoughts

Those are also strong and jarring words. The phrase “no second thoughts” is an idiom, and idioms can be difficult to understand. The phrase “no second thoughts,” for example, has two distinct meanings:

    1. Without considering; without thinking about it at all.
    2. Without reservations or regret.

I have a suspicion which meaning of “no second thoughts” Briggs intended.  At the end of the day, however, his intent doesn’t really matter. As we know quite well, what matters is how your words are interpreted – whether those words are part of a test item, written a technical report, become a viral tweet, or appear in a book on the historical and conceptual foundations of measurement.

Further, I can safely assume that some significant percentage of readers will make each of the two interpretations of “no second thoughts.” Most importantly, each interpretation and what it reflects about Holmes, our field and ourselves, and our interpretation of Holmes and history has implications for measurement and testing.

(Undoubtedly, there is a third group, a non-zero percentage of readers, who will simply read over the line quickly with no second thoughts, but I will skip them for now.)

Evidence suggests that Justice Holmes did very little without a second thought. After reading the “no second thoughts” statement, my first reaction was to dig a little deeper. My first stop was to read the complete Buck v. Bell decision from which the quote was excerpted. My second stop was to pull out the two-volume set of Holmes-Laski letters, passed down from my father’s collection, to see what thoughts on this issue and case Holmes may have expressed in personal letters to his friend Harold Laski. I will address the former in the next section and then move on to the latter.

No Second Thoughts – Without thinking about it at all

In this age of social media and 24/7 cable and streaming newstainment we have become accustomed to the concept of people speaking or writing without thinking about it at all.  So accustomed, in fact, that our default assumption when faced with something disagreeable to us is

“They haven’t really thought this through.”
“They don’t understand it the way we do.”

Strangely, this state of affairs is comforting – in the mind-dulling sense of the word – never forcing us to challenge or have second thoughts about our own beliefs.

Reactions to recent cases involving vaccine mandates show that Supreme Court and its justices are not immune (pun always intended) to the public’s thinking about not thinking. However, if our goal is to prevent Supreme Court decisions like Buck v. Bell from occurring in future cases (e.g., as early as next spring), it is important to have a fuller understanding of the thinking that occurred in that one.

Reading the complete decision written by Holmes makes it clear which issues the Court was asked to consider in this case. The question before the Court was one of what has been labelled Substantive Due Process, or as Holmes described in the decision:

The attack is not upon the procedure but upon the substantive law. It seems to be contended that in no circumstances could such an order be justified. It certainly is contended that the order cannot be justified upon the existing grounds. 

On that question of the law, in the sentence immediately preceding the excerpt quoted in the book and at the beginning of this post, Holmes wrote:

In view of the general declarations of the Legislature and the specific findings of the Court obviously we cannot say as matter of law that the grounds do not exist, and if they exist they justify the result.

As “infuriating” as it may seem to us, one issue that the Supreme Court was not asked to determine was the “mental fitness” of Carrie Buck. That was a question for the institution to which she was committed, the state, and lower courts to resolve. A second issue that the Supreme Court apparently was not asked to evaluate in this case was whether Carrie Buck’s rights to due process had been faithfully rendered (had they been rendered – yes; faithfully – historical evidence says no).

Although as Holmes states, the process was not in question in this case, in the opening section of the decision, he emphasizes the importance that he gave to the state “complying with the very careful provisions by which the act protects the patients from possible abuse” – roughly 30% of his 1,000-word decision is devoted to outlining those provisions.

We can rightly decry the decision in this case and what followed from it. It would be dangerous, however, to think that the decision-making process of the Supreme Court took place with no second thoughts.

And thinking that way would be most dangerous because it would mean that we aren’t taking a good, hard look at the person in the mirror.

Over the past six decades, the educational testing community has increasingly become like the Supreme Court of the 1920s. We defer to state and federal legislation as a matter of course and cloak ourselves in the security of due process and procedures – taking comfort in the assumption that processes and procedures will be sufficient to protect misclassified individuals.

We may talk the talk about validity (and oh my, can we talk), but we fill our days and our technical reports with processes and procedures.  We follow operational best practices every step of the way. Our scales may be arbitrary, but we are never capricious.

We struggle when they ask us to describe what we are measuring, what the results mean, or how they should be used. But we can spend hours telling them how we did it.

Give that a second thought.

No Second Thoughts – Without regrets or reservations

The second meaning of “no second thoughts” is that an opinion is expressed, or an action is taken, without regrets or reservations.

In this regard, the use of “no second thoughts” to characterize Holmes writing of the quoted passage seems quite appropriate.  He expressed pleasure that this was one of those times when the law and his personal views on a subject coincided. He also seemed bemused that fellow justices reviewing a draft of the decision felt that the words he chose were “brutal.”

So, what are we to make of this? Why should we give a second thought to the 1927 opinion of an 86-year-old justice (and a rich, white, male at that) whom we know without a second thought was wrong?

Because science.  As pleased as Holmes was that the law in Buck v. Bell coincided with his personal views (as misguided as we believe those views to be), arguably he was more excited by the prospect that the law, in general, could be informed by science – in this case science related to heredity and intelligence – and that science could be used to improve society.

Because while we may like to think that we have moved on from the early 20th century and the horror of eugenics, we know that we have not moved on from asking core questions about the relationship between heredity and intelligence. Why?

Because science doesn’t stop seeking answers and we have to be prepared to deal with those answers.

Recent scientific studies suggest that genetics accounts for 50% – 80% of individual differences in intelligence, that is, cognitive abilities. The influence of genetics appears to increase with age – that finding requires some second thought. Galton would have been giddy over numbers and findings like these.

In 2016, Scientific American published a response to the question “Is Intelligence Hereditary?

After presenting the numbers, the author states, “the ability to predict cognitive potential from DNA could prove tremendously useful,” and listed a number of the benefits of being able to predict and even prevent cognitive challenges.  There you have it. It’s all good. I’m sure that it will benefit individuals and society. What possibly could go wrong?

Final second thoughts

Perhaps Galton and the others who laid the foundation for measurement in the social sciences would find it ironic that questions related to the measurement of intelligence, or cognitive abilities, now largely fall within the purview of physical scientists. Perhaps they would have slid easily into the study of the brain and its inner workings. Perhaps they just would have been excited that their questions were being answered.

But now that we have some solid answers to their original questions, what’s next educational measurement and testing community?

Where does all of this leave us? I think that it leads us back to trying to answer the questions that emerge from reading chapter 1 of Historical and Conceptual Foundations,

  • What is educational measurement and what do we want to do with it?
  • How are we going to ensure that our tests and test scores are not appropriated as vehicles for social injustice – either deliberately and maliciously or with the best of intentions?

After giving it some thought, I think that a key to answering both of those questions is to never lose sight of one theme that runs throughout Historical and Conceptual Foundations and throughout  the history of measurement – both physical and psychological:

We are always measuring something that exists outside of and separate from the instrument and processes we are using to measure it.

Give that a second thought.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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