Sunday, June 11, 2017

Use and Abuse of Science

Friedrich Nietzsche

By Bob Ferris

In college I struggled (like many) with Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.  Four decades later, and taken in its complete context, it makes more sense to me.  I think about this work—more pamphlet than book—as I talk with folks about science.  This idea of discipline abuse applies particularly to those who incorrectly apply or twist science to defend their strongly-held religious, political or moral beliefs.  All of these are realms where science does not comfortably tread and certainly does nothing to provide sign posts. 
"Many endorse the view of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which stated in 1981 that the existence of human life at conception is “a question to which science can provide no answer.”  Since that time, scientists and physicians have remained more of less mum—or self-censored—on the issue." When Does Human Life Begin? by Arthur Caplan.
Here abortion comes first to mind.  I have read a few pieces where those trained in the sciences have claimed that human life starts at conception.  This is a not something that science per se can or would argue (1,2,3) and they should know that from their training.  They should know that science is not about holding a belief and then assembling those findings that support your a priori position.  Science is a squiggly beast and more likely to lead to questions and doubt than a brass-bound or iron-clad answer.  The immutable, unquestionable and un-blurred are denizens of the lands of faith and law not science.
Hair follicle.
What questions? How, for instance, is a fertilized egg any more “human” than a hair follicle or sloughed cell traveling out your intestine? All of them hold the same compliment of genetic material. And all of them could be converted into viable human beings with some assistance and intervention. Subjected to any of the DNA analysis techniques such as fingerprinting they would all yield the same basic results.

And how is abortion different than miscarriage or the failure of a fertilized egg to implant which is the most common outcome?  All have the same end result and would be considered equal outcomes by science.  Yet these folks claiming to be guided by science see some as a natural happenstance and have judged others as a mortal sin.  I would argue that when scientifically-identical outcomes are seen differently some additional lens must be in play.

In point of fact science and emerging technologies makes clear delineation of this even more problematic as we understand that being a human is more part of a complexly-woven journey than a single destination.  So when someone presses me to say when science tells us human life begins, my head is filled more with questions than answers.  I often wrestle with the concept of species and whether we serve ourselves well using an abstraction just because it translates fairly easily to a legal concept.  If there is a moment of pure human-ness then are those with Neanderthal genes, Down Syndrome or mutations less human?  And what about those males or females with extra X chromosomes? It is interesting to note here that those with purely Africa origins have no Neanderthal material making them actually more purely “human” than those from Europe or Eurasia. Imagine that?

There is also something disturbingly authoritative and patriarchic about all this that brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.   How can science on one hand document the myriad impacts of over-population and then suddenly act to enable policies and postures that would tend towards making the matter worse? It’s as if these scientifically-trained religious adherents feel they sound more rational when they say science dictates this rather than God.  It is an abuse of science and dishonest intellectually.  Moreover science exists more in the realm of "could" and "might" than in those milieus where "should" and "must" are most comfortable.   In short, science is not a bludgeon for making women act as mere vessels, but more likely a means for making wanted pregnancies and the alternatives more risk-free. 

Bottom-line is that folks need to be honest about who or what brought them to the dance.  This is as true about abortion as it is with climate change, vaccination resistance and even fiscal policy.  Science informs but does not dictate.  That said, analyses would hardly argue that religious strictures of reproductive obligation penned when global human populations were climbing towards 30 million would still make sense as our trajectory pushes us near 9 billion.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful essay on science and political/ethical concerns. After an education in history of science and marriage to a scientist, I have come to think that most nonscientists have very little idea what actually is scientific thinking. It is so often thought of as a means to an end instead of a continual process of narrowing probabilities and/or exploring some new aspect that crops up in the last research. This is true of academic discussions in the humanities as well, but since the humanities are basically ignored as soft, it's shrugged off; science on the other hand is viewed as having practical applications, which has some truth (and it's true of the humanities as well) but that's not the real point of the practice of research. Every morning, Jim used to ask his group "Ready for another exciting day on the frontier of science?" Science is always on the edge of the frontier (Emerson's 'becoming' using the metaphor of concentric circles comes to mind). The other day, I posted an article about the analysis of microbes in desert soil. Both Jim and I commented that the article was interesting, but we rolled our eyes that it included the seemingly obligatory paragraph nowadays on all the benefits to humans that could be reaped from such research: new plastics, carbon sequestering etc. By doing so, the writer missed the point of research by including these 'practical reasons.'. My ex-husband worked at Sandia National Lab and no matter what research they were proposing, they had to give some possible use for the military to aid in war in order to get funding. Again they are missing the point of research. Global warming has become such a threat that scientists have become involved in more activism than ever before, but science itself is in no way inherently political. The fact that scientists cringe when asked to give predictions and instead speak in terms probability has been used by fossil fools to create doubt. The fools assert that even if there's 99.9999% probability that climate change or whatever is true, then there's a some tiny, teeny possibility that the whole thing may not be true. Right? The implied conclusion is that we should be skeptical of anything that isn't 100%. If it cannot be 'proven' that rising ocean waters is caused by global warming, then we should ignore it, so goes the argument. If probability was taught to every person, we likely would not be in this situation. However, maybe not. People can be doggedly ignorant.