May 12 2008

Gerson on Science

Last week Michael Gerson published this editorial in the Washington Post – essentially his answer to the notion that there is a “Republican war on science.” He argues that:

There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a “war on science.”

Gerson needs to get out more. I do not want to address some of the purely political points that he is trying to make (this is simply not a political blog), but the piece does present some opportunities to discuss logical fallacies. (As an aside, for convenience I will use “Republican” or “conservative” to refer to the positions that Gerson is defending but I acknowledge that not all Republicans or conservatives hold these positions.) For example, he writes:

Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled “anti-science.” Any ethical question about the destruction of human embryos to harvest their cells is dismissed as “theological” and thus illegitimate.

Gerson is being highly selective in his examples, creating a straw man of the position he is trying to discredit. He also lists examples of successful government funded science, which is a non-sequitur. No one is arguing that the US government under the current Republican administration is not continuing to fund research through existing mechanisms, like the NIH. The primary criticism is that political expediency is being put in front of scientific discourse and evidence. There is always a tendency for this to happen, on all sides of politics, but the charge is that recently this has increased to an unacceptable degree.

Let us begin with the two examples Gerson does give – sex education and stem cell research. Gerson characterizes the conservative position as raising “practical” concerns about the content of sex education. I wonder what these practical concerns are. The actual criticism, however, is that social conservatives are pushing for abstinence only programs when the scientific evidence shows that such programs do not work, increasing the risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. This is therefore an example of putting ideology ahead of scientific evidence and “practical” concerns.

Regarding stem cell research, Gerson”s straw man is that the Republican resistance to this research consists of raising legitimate ethical concerns, which are being dismissed as “theological.” I acknowledge that some critics of the Republican position may do this, that is why I personally have always been careful to say that there is a legitimate place for raising ethical considerations of any new cutting edge research, especially involving humans or human tissue. Gerson, however, glosses over the real issues to the point of being deceptive.

The real question is – what is the difference between “ethics” and “theology”? This is a long discussion, but to summarize my position – ethics are comprised of rules and principles that are derived from underlying first principles that attempt to be universal and objective. In other words, they should apply equally to everyone, they need to stand on their own merits as logical and practical guidelines to laws and behaviors. They should not, however, require a particular religious faith.\r\n\r\nWhile there is a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the application of ethical principles related to the value and rights of human life as it pertains to harvesting human embryos, conservatives have hardly confined themselves to such ethical discussions. Often their arguments are overtly theological. Further, critics of embryonic stem cell research have often argued against the science – relying upon pseudoscientific arguments. For example, Laura Bush and others have argued that stem cell research may not produce any useful medical treatments. Perhaps they need to look up the definition of “research.”\r\n\r\nGerson also does not even mention those issues that are most prominent in the list of examples of conservative ideology trumping science. The worst example, in my opinion, is the opposition to evolution and the repeated attempts to push the teaching of creationism (in various guises) into public education. Conservatives have also rejected the scientific consensus on global warming (although some of them are coming around). Here there is genuine controversy and also, I think, bad science in the name of ideology on both sides. But in my opinion the Republicans have been more out of step with the science on this issue.

While the first part of his article is spent constructing this transparent straw man, Gerson goes off the deep end in the second part of his article. He writes:

All of which highlights a real conflict, a war within liberalism between the idea of unrestricted science in the cause of health and the principle that all men are created equal — between humanitarianism and egalitarianism.

and later

Without a firm, morally grounded belief in equality, liberalism has been led down some dark paths. The old, progressive eugenics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries involved widespread sterilization of the mentally disabled as a form of social hygiene. “Drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society,” argued Margaret Sanger in 1922, “if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.”\r\n\r\nAnd this “sentimentalism,” Levin observes, is actually egalitarianism.

“Unrestricted science”, again, is a straw man. No one is seriously arguing that science should be unrestricted. Professional ethics is alive and well in the halls of science. Gerson pretends that because he disagrees with the ethical judgments of many liberals that liberalism is promoting science without ethics. This is absurd.

For example, with embryonic stem cell research the ethical judgment is between the value and rights of the embryo vs the potential to save and improve lives from embryonic stem cell research. While Gerson is decrying those who try to “shut down political debate,” he is trying to shut it down by not acknowledging that there are legitimate ethical positions on both sides. Pretending the other side does not have a point to make is a way of shutting down real debate.

Gerson builds his straw man, adding some 86 year old observation, into the go-to straw man argument of the anti-science religious moralists – that there is or can be no ethics with science alone. This is a misdirection – science is, indeed, amoral. But accepting science does not mean amorality – because we can and have built an ethical system on logic, reason, and our collective human experience – one that includes the principles of justice and equality.

Gerson quotes Yval Levin:

“Surely the most essential problem with the eugenics movement was not coercion or collectivism. . . . The deepest and most significant contention of the progressive eugenicists — the one that made all the others possible — was that science had shown the principle of human equality to be unfounded, a view that then allowed them to use the authority of science to undermine our egalitarianism and our regard for the weakest members of our society.”

This is complete rubbish, and yet Gerson develops it as his central point. The unstated major premise here is that human equality is founded in things that can be measured by science, and so the “authority of science” undermines egalitarianism. But this premise is false. I would add that this false premise is cited on the left and right ends of the political spectrum. On the left it is sometimes used to argue that science must find that all people are equal, in order to support the ideology of egalitarianism. So “politically correct” science must find that the sexes and races are biologically equivalent in all respects. Gerson is ironically saying the opposite – that since science finds humanity not to be biologically equal, we must reject science, and the reliance on science by liberals therefore causes for them a dilemma. Gerson is therefore mischaracterizing liberals, science, and ethics.

Gerson”s entire point is wiped away by recognizing his core fallacy – that ethical principles are dependent upon scientific facts. He concludes:

But science can easily become the power of some over the lives of others. And in their talk of a Republican war on science, liberals may be blinding themselves to a very different kind of modern war in which their own ideals are deeply implicated: a war on equality.

So while he is decrying the concept of a “Republican war on science” he is simultaneously decrying science as potentially oppressive – “the power of some over the lives of others.” This seems to be a contradiction. Science, in fact, is just a tool. It can be used for good or evil. It does not tell us how we should behave, and neither does accepting science mean we must accept amorality – we can just derive our ethics from rational principles that are independent of the factual state of nature. For example, we can decide that it is best for all people, men and women and despite continent of origin, to be treated with equal dignity and rights. This is not dependent upon any scientific fact regarding biological realities.

Gerson says that the liberals” core dilemma is that their dedication to science is resulting in a war on equality. This is not true, as I just demonstrated. Further he misses the actual fallacy that a liberal dedication to equality has, at times, led to a “politically correct” anti-scientific stance. He does all this as a backhanded way of attacking amoral science while asking us to believe there is no ideological war on science coming from the right.

In other words, his essay is an ideological confused mess.

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