Mar 18 2009

Don’t Take Medical Advice From The Pope

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Comments: 25

While visiting in Africa Pope Benedict made his first public comment on condom use.

“(HIV/AIDS) is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

The Catholic health minister warns that HIV can pass through condoms and therefore they basically don’t work.

It’s not difficult to point out the obvious here. The evidence shows that, when used properly, condoms decrease the risk of HIV transmission by 90%. The Pope and the Catholic church has an obvious conflict here as they have had a longstanding policy against condom use on moral grounds.

I do want to point out that I have no problem with a religious organization preaching a moral code. I may have a problem with specific beliefs or tenets of certain religions, if I think they are malignant or immoral from a more objective basis, but I believe in freedom of religion and they certainly have the right to preach what they want.

However, I have a serious problem with anyone who makes specific scientific claims just to support a moral position.  Having a religious stance against condom use does not mean you get to make up your own scientific facts about them. Further, when dealing with a public health crisis, like HIV in Africa, spreading misinformation can be considered malfeasance.

Rather, the Pope and the church should just say what they believe – go ahead and promote abstinence and fidelity as one means of preventing the spread of HIV. But do not make up scientific facts to support a moral position.

This behavior stems from the general human desire for clean simplicity combined with the tendency to defend held positions at all costs. Reality is often not accommodating – it’s ambiguous and involves trade-offs.

Twisting science to support a religious belief is also just a failed strategy. The false scientific arguments just end up diluting the moral argument and squandering the credibility of those who make them. It is better to admit that condoms may be effective, but abstinence is more moral. Or that embryonic stem cells may create effective cures, but the moral trade-offs are not worth it. Don’t pretend stem cells don’t hold promise.

By linking himself to a demonstrably false factual claim, the Pope has only succeeded in removing himself from any serious public discussion on the issue. And, to the extent that any of his followers actually believe his false statements, he has potentially contributed to the spread of HIV.

Don’t fight the facts – it’s a losing strategy.

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