Friday, January 22, 2010

Science Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I recently read Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science, by Theodore L. Brown, published last year by the Pennsylvania State University Press. It's an example of what I can only describe as scientific apologetics. For the benefit of those who may find the word confusing, "apologetics" doesn't mean asking pardon for bad behavior: it means a defense of one's life (as in Plato's Apology, which represents his teacher Socrates' speech in his own defense at his trial) or opinions and beliefs (as in the very long tradition of Christian defenses of their religion). Wikipedia defines apologetics as "a field of Christian theology that aims to present a rational basis for the Christian faith, defend the faith against objections, and expose the perceived flaws of other world views", which is a good summation of what scientific apologists do for their own domain. Theodore L. Brown takes much of that tradition for granted in Imperfect Oracle, and seems mainly concerned to make a case for the exercise of scientific authority in modern, especially American society, and for what he calls the "autonomy" of science. He is aware that authority is a complex, ambiguous notion, but keeps getting tangled up in its coils.

For example, in his chapter on "Science and Religion," Brown takes up the controversial issues of contraception and abortion. "It is arguable," he admits, "whether any increased knowledge of human biology could influence the Catholic Church's position on the beginnings of human life, and hence on questions relating to contraception and abortion. Nevertheless, it is germane to our discussion that scientific research has revealed many aspects of the process of conception that could inform thoughtful consideration of the moral aspects of contraception, abortion, use of stem cells for research, and much more" (188). After a summary of Church doctrine and the science of conception, Brown reports (194):
Abundant survey data show that since the publication of Humanae Vitae, Catholics worldwide have increasingly practiced contraception in violation of church edicts ... For example, among women between the age of fifteen and forty-nine in the United States, 70 percent of Catholic women were using some form of contraception in 1995, about the same percentage of all women in that age group. ... The data are quite clear: the Catholic Church has very limited moral authority with Catholic laity in matters of sexual behavior and reproductive health.

A second interesting theme is embedded in Pope Paul's interview with Jean Guitton [quoted on the preceding page]. It reveals his suspicions of science as a source of good, and a fear that the Church will not be able to deal effectively with the complex moral and religious issues emerging from scientific advances. The pope expresses the fears of the Vatican hierarchy -- a collection of celibate, rather aged men not in good contact with the realities of modern life -- that any authority the church cedes to science is authority lost.

It is important to see that at the biological level, the issue of contraception is not one in which the authority of the Catholic Church and science are in direct opposition. There is no real question of the expert authority in matters related to contraception ... At the level of the biology associated with human fertility, science's role has been that of the expert ... Conception and fetal development are biological processes, not ecclesiastical definitions. A teaching that is uninformed by any of what science knows about these most vital biological matters is bound to suffer some loss of moral authority with Catholic laity. Although, at the most basic level, science and the Catholic Church are not at opposite poles, neither do they reside comfortably alongside each other.
With all due disrespect to Paul VI and to the Roman Catholic Church generally, I disagree with Brown's interpretation of the excerpt he quotes from the Pope's conversation with Jean Guitton (cited from Robert McClory, Turning Point [Crossroad, 1995], 131-132). No doubt the Pope was concerned about his authority, like many of his predecessors; the Church's authority has never been unquestioned or uncontested. Basically, though, he made the same point that Brown concedes here: that the morality of contraception and abortion are not determined by biology. (I'd also note that many opponents of abortion have been Protestant, and some are not religious at all -- the "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens, for example, though Hitchens "resents" his "annexation" by anti-choice extremist groups.)

Brown trips over his own feet in that last paragraph I quoted. True, conception and fetal development are "biological processes, not ecclesiastical definitions", but one could say the same about sexual intercourse with as much justice. The differences between consensual intercourse, marital sex, fornication, adultery, and rape are not biological but moral and ethical. (The Church has been trying for centuries to convince the laity that fornication -- consensual intercourse between unmarried persons -- is a sin no less than adultery, but largely in vain.) Religious opponents of abortion and contraception don't dispute that these interventions work -- they don't, in other words, deny that science has the technical expertise to carry them out -- they declare that they shouldn't be carried out. And Catholics who reject the Church's "moral authority" by using contraception or securing abortion do not thereby grant "moral authority" to science. Women weren't convinced by science that it was okay to have abortions or prevent conception. Women have sought ways to control their fertility for millennia; they only needed better technology to do so effectively. While they are no doubt grateful to scientists and doctors who've provided that technology, they are no more willing to cede authority over their bodies to doctors than to popes. Brown is confusing different kinds of authority here.

But then, Brown likes the science-versus-religion trope, even when it doesn't quite fit. For example, when he recounts the career of Louis Pasteur, he writes about doctors who rejected Pasteur's advice to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments: "Despite his exalted reputation as a scientist, however, his moral authority with the medical establishment was quite limited. The members of the distinguished Academy of Medicine, a generally self-satisfied lot, did not graciously accept advice from someone who, though a newly elected member, was outside their circle" (63). Yet Brown admits that Pasteur was also a showman who exercised what Brown calls "charismatic authority" to impress the public and build his career. The Academicians, whatever their reasons for doubting Pasteur's recommendations, saw themselves as men of science. Similar motives underlie the professionalization and institutionalization of science today, and not for the better.

In his summation at the end of Imperfect Oracle, Brown shows that his confusion with regard to fertility is not an isolated lapse (293):
Scientists, like anyone else, may hold ideas that are simply wrong. Individual scientists have at times advanced faulty theories regarding race, social status, and gender that served those in power. Scientists have at times been complicit in supporting repressive political regimes. But these shortcomings were typically short-lived, and were brought to an end by actions of the scientific community itself. They must be measured against the enormous positive changes that science has wrought. Scientific discoveries have made it possible to hold progressive ideas about human nature that were previously unthinkable. In American society today, the conservation about such topics as religious beliefs, ageing, homosexuality and gay marriage, the origins of criminal behavior, the deleterious effects of persistent organic environmental pollutants, childhood education, global warming – the list is virtually endless – are all informed in one way or another by perspectives that are the result of scientific investigation.
Brown's concession of science's "shortcomings" here is a bit disingenuous, and reminds me that he chose not to deal at all with such problems as negative eugenics, taking advantage of the usual association of the forced sterilization of the "unfit" with Nazism and other "repressive political regimes." But the first sterilization laws were passed in the United States. As Andre Pichot wrote in The Pure Society from Darwin to Hitler (Verso, 2009, page 179),
It is probable, therefore, that even without the Nazis, Germany would at some point or other have adopted and put into effect legislation of this kind. Besides, it was only the Catholic Church that made any institutional protest, particularly in the person of the bishop of M√ľnster, Clemens August Graf von Galen – whom we shall meet again later on, and who condemned eugenic sterilization in a pastoral declaration of 29 January 1937.
The same applies to the US, where only conservative Christians opposed our sterilization laws. It's certainly easier to jeer at the Church for opposing birth control than for opposing the sterilization of the mentally ill; but it wasn't scientists who brought that practice to an end.

I have similar objections to Brown's catalog of topics about which he thinks science has "made it possible to hold progressive ideas": "religious beliefs, ageing, homosexuality and gay marriage, the origins of criminal behavior, the deleterious effects of persistent organic environmental pollutants, childhood education, global warming - the list is virtually endless". Science has contributed little to discussion of most of these issues, and often has been flat wrong about them. "The origins of criminal behavior," for example, belongs to the sorry history of eugenics: many scientists were sure they could trace "criminal behavior" (by which they didn't mean the crimes of rulers and business leaders) to biology, and "habitual criminals" were also a target of sterilization laws, as were homosexuals. On "homosexuality and gay marriage" science also has little light to shed, and as far as I can tell is more of an obstacle to understanding than an aid. We don't know much more about homosexuality than the Greeks did, but then we don't really need to. Gay activists drew on Alfred Kinsey's research on human sexuality, but it was too controversial to be much help, and today's gay leadership has largely rejected Kinsey in favor of retrogressive biological determinism. Recently I read someone's claim that there is no secular institution or movement trying to make gay people straight. Until just a few years ago, though, secular psychiatry tried to do just that, in the name of science and a better world.

Current attempts to explain the evolution or biology of religion are based in the same wrong-headed tradition. While science may allow us to measure the "deleterious effects of persistent organic environmental pollutants" with a new degress of accuracy, people have always known that it's not a good idea to shit where you eat. And so on; too often in areas relating to human society, scientists have been human, all too human in their approaches to problems, and have often lagged behind non-scientific thinkers.

Not that I'm saying, mind you, that science has nothing to contribute on important topics, or that scientists shouldn't participate in social debates about them. What I'm saying is that science has no "authority" on, say, gay marriage or the rest of Brown's catalog, any more than religion has. Not long ago I noticed Richard Dawkins fuming about theologians' opinions being consulted or accorded any respect at all. He had a point, but the same applies to scientists. If Richard Dawkins has better politics than most Englishmen of his class a century ago, it's not because of advances in science, but because of changes wrought in the way we think by people of no particular scientific or theological sophistication, with no authority but what they made for themselves.