Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the misuse of science by pro-life groups

Walking through the State House I ran into Barth Bracy, head honcho of Rhode Island's major anti-choice group. He asked me why, when we recently sparred with dueling comments and letters in the ProJo, (here and here) I did not seek to refute his "scientific" assertion that since a human fetus has human DNA, it therefore must be a human.

I answered that I did not take that point up because it was so weak it hardly needed to be refuted. To say that a human embryo has human DNA is a tautology: by definition human embryos have human DNA. If the embryo had chicken DNA it would be a chicken embryo (sold by the dozen in supermarkets.) Barth persisted that I didn’t answer his point, and implied that I conceded his argument.

So here we go.

Barth’s tautology is a classic example of what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls a "deepity," a trite and obvious statement that the speaker has embedded with a false sense of deeper meaning and import. Examples include, “The theory of gravity is only a theory” and “Que sera sera!" Barth's mistake is employing an empty metaphor and pretending the statement is science.

What's wrong with Barth's statement philosophically is that it's in reality a broken syllogism, a set of statements that fail to prove the conclusion:

-Human embryos contain human DNA.
-Human beings contain human DNA.
-Therefore, human embryos are human beings.

This is of course nonsense. To illustrate why, check the following argument:

-Human toenail clippings contain human DNA.
-Human beings contain human DNA.
-Therefore, human toenail clippings are human beings.

Not even Barth Bracy pretends to believe this. The error is that the word "human" in the first statement is an adjective, as in "human blood" or "human footprints" but in the last statement Barth switches the adjective with a noun, human being. This is called the fallacy of equivocation, and it is more common than you might think.

But that isn't the end of Barth's argument. He asked me why every text book on embryology agrees with him in referring to human embryos as human beings.

Of course, when pressed, Barth demurred from claiming to have consulted every text book on embryology. But even granting him a large part of the argument and allowing that most embryology text books make this claim, what of it? If the text books are simply stating that human embryos contain human DNA, or that human development occurs in various stages within the mother's womb, they are using the adjectival form of "human" to describe human processes (as in the term "human processes").

But rare indeed would be the human embryology text book that departs from biological instruction and enters into the world of value statements about human beings as persons. Barth jumps there by maintaining that fertilized eggs, morulas, blastocysts, zygotes and fetuses are human beings or persons, using the following false argument:

-Human embryos are human beings.
-Human beings or persons are entitled to a full range of human rights.
-Human embryos are entitled to a full range of human rights.

As we can see, since Barth has made a grievous error in his first argument, his second argument contains a premise that is false. In such a construction, if one of the premises is false or questionable, the conclusion is false or questionable.
Barth is trying to make his case using the appearance of science rather than religion. I assured him during our unexpected State House conversation that his statements and arguments were in no way science, but that to certain audiences his ideas might sound "science-y." Science is not a statement misrepresented from an embryology text book, science is a process of hypothesis, observation and experimentation. I asked Barth how he would experimentally prove that a human embryo was a human being entitled to a full set of human rights. What experiment, I asked, would falsify his statement?

After insulting me by suggesting that I am probably a denier of global warming, Barth recognized that I was invoking Karl Popper, one of the great science philosophers of the 20th century, who developed the idea of falsifiability as a precondition to making sensible and scientific claims. That Barth recognized Popper’s hand in my argument demonstrated to me that he once knew the distinction between doing science and making declarative value statements. Barth’s recognition of Popper convinced me that he has knowingly misrepresented what science is when making public statements that he claims are scientific in nature. He demonstrated that he is willing to deceive his audience rather than truly engage with the subject in a scientific fashion.

Barth's contention that human embryos are human beings entitled to a full range of human rights is a value judgement. Though I am no great lover of David Hume's is/ought gap, I do think that at the very least Barth should do some of the philosophical heavy lifting that gets him to his conclusion. Instead, Barth seems content to recycle easy and facile statements that have the appearance of supporting his pre-established beliefs.

I referred to these pre-established beliefs as religious in nature during our ProJo dust-up. Barth contends that he is not motivated by religion, but by science. He is not. Barth is willing to misuse science to bolster his case, but actual science gets him nowhere, and he knows it. Science can tell us what and how things are, but we use values, ethics and morals, sometimes religious in nature and sometimes not, to determine meaning and importance.

Good and honest people, when considering issues such as where in the continuity of human development a fetus might gain a full set of human rights, can come to different conclusions. Barth would see his view, that human rights begin at conception, imposed on all of us. He would impose his sense of what is right and wrong on every pregnant woman, taking away her right to make the right decision for herself.

If Barth truly wants to tighten his fist around the neck of free conscience, he is going to have to come up with better arguments.

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