Friday, October 29, 2010

Our New Dark Ages

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to part of a debate between candidates for public office, and the topic of cap and trade was on their agenda. I was struck by something one of the candidates said about global warming. He claimed that not only is the question of whether global warming is driven by human activity a myth (so-called "anthropogenic climate change"), but that the very fact of global warming is a myth ("myth" was the very word he used). I was struck by this for two reasons. First, while it is true that no scientific theory is literally irreformable and, hence, the question of the causal mechanisms behind climate change must remain an open one, nevertheless the interpretation of the actual data involved in climate change is actually rather straightforward, in spite of what some rather excitable folks tried to make out of the data collection and interpretation methodologies revealed in the whole kerfuffle over the hacked emails from Phil Jones and other involved with the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. I say this in spite of my own decidedly anti-realist leanings in the philosophy of science: all data are multiply interpretable, but usually only a very few interpretations are intellectually warranted, and in this particular case the scandal had to do not with the meaning of the data but the manner in which it was disseminated. Charges of "cooking" the data have been made, but usually only by folks who do not fully understand the nature of scientific inquiry in the first place.

Second, and more importantly from a philosophical perspective, I was struck by the attitude towards climate research that was revealed by this particular candidate's characterization of the work being done. The word "myth" is not necessarily, in my opinion, a pejorative one per se. For example, I believe that much of what can be read in the Scriptures is mythological, but that does not mean that it is not true, and importantly so. But for this particular candidate the word "myth" clearly means "falsehood" or perhaps even "lie". But even if we assume that he means only something benign, perhaps something along the lines of "an unwarranted fantasy foolishly endorsed by certain useful idiots in the climate research lobby", the attitude is nevertheless striking because of what it says about the long Western tradition of interpretations of nature as a fundamental component of our epistemological growth and self-understanding.

The candidate actually said, explicitly, "I'm not going to believe in this myth", and then there was an exchange between him and his opponent in which "believing" in climate change was compared to believing in the tooth fairy. (I am not making this up.) The first thing that should be noted, I think, is that there is an interesting tension here. On the one hand, the candidate is asserting that there are reasons to think that climate change is not happening at all. He does not say what those reasons are, he merely asserts that the whole theory is a "myth" and leaves it at that. Now, ordinarily, I would have to agree: in every empirical study the data underdetermine the available theories, so there is always a possibility that any given theoretical interpretation of the data is mistaken. However, usually when one wants to plump for one theory over another, there is an intellectual burden to say what reasons one has for thinking that Theory One is preferable to Theory Two. However, this candidate seemed to be suggesting that it is not merely that there are reasons for thinking that climate change is not happening, he seemed to suggest that there are no reasons to think that climate change is happening, just as there are no reasons (or no rationally warranted reasons) to think that there is such a thing as a tooth fairy. This is a much stronger position than mere underdetermination would warrant. It is, in fact, an irrational position to the extent that it outright denies the very thing that it sets out to assert: that empirical data are multiply interpretable.

But there is a much more worrisome aspect to this whole thing. The candidate made it clear that he actually has a criterion of warrant that justifies his position. He said quite explicitly that the reason why it is warranted to say that climate change is a "myth" is because there is no "consensus" among scientists about the causal mechanisms of climate change. In other words, it is his belief that unless there is unanimity of opinion among scientists (he made it clear that by "consensus" he means "unanimity of opinion") that Theory X is true, we are warranted in thinking that Theory X is actually false. As I remarked above, there is a viable anti-realist view that would be consistent with a moderate version of this--namely, one would be warranted in thinking that theories of climate change are always reformable--but the candidate clearly is endorsing something much stronger than mere anti-realism with respect to scientific theories. Now, let's be honest here: the guy's a political candidate, not a rocket scientist or a philosopher of science, so perhaps we should cut him some slack. What does he know about underdetermination or anti-realism? In fact, I suspect that most folks who challenge climate science would find anti-realism rather unpalatable, but that is just one of the many delicious ironies of the political age in which we live.

What is it about this that I find worrisome? Principally it is the idea that we are justified in turning a blind eye to scientific inquiry when scientific inquiry does not present us with absolute certainty of interpretation. Indeed, in the present case we are told that it is not enough to turn a blind eye: we are being told that to accept certain interpretations is tantamount to believing in the tooth fairy. Well, speaking of believing in the tooth fairy, I recently noticed that Bob Sungenis and some of his cronies have started plumping for the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system (see his website here). Since at least some PhDs in physics claim to find this view worthy of attention (or perhaps it would be more correct to say that Sungenis claims that they claim to think this), are we then warranted in thinking that there is no real "consensus" on the Copernican heliocentric model? Because if so, our political candidate would appear to be committed to the proposition that believing that the earth revolves around the sun is tantamount to believing in the tooth fairy. On the other hand, if our candidate were to respond that he did not mean to suggest that kooks like Sungenis constitute a viable alternative to "real" science, so there still is a "consensus" on heliocentrism, he would be opening himself to similar charges: just who are the people who challenge the science behind climate change, and why should we take them seriously? But as I mentioned above, he does not actually give us any reasons for thinking that climate change is just a myth, he merely asserts that it is.

The difficulty here should be obvious. Science is, by its very nature, an open inquiry. No scientific theory can ever reasonably be held to be an established, irreformable fact (contrary to what Richard Dawkins says about evolutionary theory--evolutionary theory is one of the most robustly confirmed scientific theories in the history of science, but it is nevertheless still not an irreformable "fact" that is indisputably "true" in a realist sense). All data are multiply interpretable, and this includes theoretical claims. Indeed, it is difficult to see in what sense it would even be meaningful to claim that a scientific theory, which is by its very nature a model of something else, is a "fact". By claiming that science is not to be trusted or even "believed" unless it can establish "facts" by means of a "consensus" of unanimity, our candidate endorses a belief about science which is tantamount to believing in the tooth fairy. Science is no more the sort of thing our candidate believes it to be than is the tooth fairy a real live fairy who leaves children money in exchange for their teeth.

In short, our candidate's view about science is an instance of ignorance about science, and yet it is being put forward as a rational, detached, and objective view about science, one that is allegedly free from the sort of ideological dogmatism that our candidate believes has beguiled those poor benighted folks who still "believe" in climate change. This man wants to hold a position of public trust and authority; he wants to shape science policy. And yet he knows nothing about science. Voting for this man would be like letting witch doctors set the curricula in our medical schools. And this view is no longer a minority view: many other political candidates are joining this throng, based partly on the perception that the public at large tends to agree with them.

Does the public, in fact, accept this view of science? The real fear here is that, yes, by and large folks are becoming ever more irrational about the nature of the scientific enterprise. Because many people have been persuaded that science is already politicized, they are becoming ever more receptive to charges of politicization in just about every scientific arena. I do not deny that scientists are human beings with political aspirations, nor do I deny that much scientific research receives funding and other means of support on the basis of political considerations. To deny these things would be as irrational as adopting the view of science adopted by our candidate. I agree with those who worry that many policy decisions that accept and appeal to the data of climate scientists are politically motivated and often unwarranted, but this does not mean that I think that every and all scientific interpretations of climate data are equally rationally warranted. In spite of the fact that there is no "consensus" of the sort our candidate demands, it would be irrational to claim that it is not the case that the majority of experts in the field of climate research think that the climate is, indeed, changing. Many of these same experts think that the climate is changing because of causal mechanisms set into play by human activity. This latter claim is much more difficult to establish, of course, but it is not irrational to believe it--believing in anthropogenic climate change is not the same thing as believing in the tooth fairy, nor would it be even if it were the minority view among climate scientists. It is one possible interpretation among many, and to deny this is mere political posturing. Putting political power ahead of genuine epistemic progress and knowledge of the natural ordering of things is just one sign among many that we are living in an age characterized by willful ignorance and indifference to intellectual achievement and the nature of scientific expertise. In short, we are living in a new dark age.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rightward Turn

In the late 1950s and early 1960s William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and other prominent conservative intellectuals pulled off a kind of Velvet Revolution. By means of a series of thoughtful and thought-provoking publications and other media appearances they managed to separate mainstream conservatism from the far-right kooks such as the John Birch Society, Fr. Coughlin, and others who represented the know-nothing, knee-jerk fringe. The effect of this little coup was salutary, because it resulted in a period of nearly thirty years during which the conservative voice carried moral weight in the public square.

Of course, the culture at large was rather different in those days. The PBS television network had room for such middle-brow intellectual fare as Buckley's Firing Line, Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and there were only two or three "major" conservative publications, National Review and The American Spectator being the ones with the largest circulation. Our culture has since, shall we say, "moved on".

I first began to notice the change quite some time ago--back when Buckley retired from editing National Review, in fact. Slowly but surely the writing in that forum grew less interesting and far from intellectually stimulating. But other publications arrived to fill its place, or so I thought: I began reading the Weekly Standard, and found that it sometimes rose to level of the National Review of the late 60s and early 70s. At about the same time, Rush Limbaugh was growing in popularity with radio audiences across the country, and for a little while he even had a television show.

Today, as I look through the sources of "conservative thought" available on the Internet, TV, and radio, I find that the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Andrew Breitbard make the John Birch Society look like Plato's Academy by comparison. The capacity to communicate the conservative stance by means of intellectual disquisition and rational argumentation has vanished, only to be replaced by the same sort of shrill, knee-jerk bigotry that characterizes so much of the left. While it is true that even Glenn Beck will, on occasion, say something that I find congenial, one must sadly note that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and as any reader of Plato's Theaetetus will know (hence, none of the current "conservative" pundits), getting something right once in a while is not a sufficient condition for knowledge or even intelligence.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of them being that (a) genuine conservative values will stand less of a chance of making any headway in the public square and (b) our culture, as a whole, is now "slouching towards Gomorrah" at twice the rate it was when this sort of behavior was largely confined to the left. Among these reasons, however, the genuine conservative must surely include the painful irony of a movement in which the noble and the good, construed as the end of man, are at the heart of what it means to be a member of that movement, winds up pillorying itself by stooping to the very tactics of its opposition in an appeal to the vulgar prejudices and bigotries of populism.

Nothing is new under the sun, of course, and while one may lament the present state of things, one comforts oneself with the thought that we have been here before and somehow managed to survive. The history of political discourse in the United States, contrary to the current wisdom, has not suddenly arrived at an unprecedented nadir, but has rather always been characterized by the sort of stuff that one might find flowing forth from the Cloaca Maxima. It is only our short institutional memory that prompts us to characterize our own situation as the End Time. But as new media and new cultural trends multiply ever more quickly with the aid of modern technology, it begins to seem as though the likelihood of another Velvet Revolution in conservative thought is very small, and that, perhaps, is to be lamented even more than the present situation.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Facile Inferences

In my previous post I suggested that some misunderstandings about intellectual history are due to a lack of literary experience and reading comprehension. Many of the misunderstandings I had in mind were misunderstandings by non-scientists about science. In this post I will suggest that this sort of misunderstanding also occurs among scientists about non-science, specifically about value theory and theology--domains that are arguably quite removed from the "hard" sciences, which may serve to explain, in part, why some scientists might be liable to this sort of misunderstanding.

I was reminded of this sort of misunderstanding among scientists by an opinion piece in the August 2010 issue of Scientific American (not available online, which is probably just as well), which I continue to read in spite of the increasing presence in it of opinion pieces of this sort. The essay, called "Faith and Foolishness", was written by Lawrence Krauss, who is presently the Director of an outfit called the "Origins Initiative" at Arizona State University, which appears to be some sort of popularizing "think tank" directed at what they describe as "deep and foundational questions ranging across the entire spectrum of scholarship at ASU" (see the website here). The essay itself begins by pondering "the sad fact that U. S. adults are less willing to accept evolution and the big bang as factual than adults in other industrial countries." Evolution and other Big Ticket scientific theories appear to be the principle focus of the "deep and foundational questions" of interest to the folks at the Origins Institute. It would be easy, at this point, to focus in on the mistake of conflating the notion of "fact" with the notion of an explanatory theory, however robustly confirmed, but that would be rather like shooting fish in a barrel, and I certainly have no beef against evolutionary theory or any particular cosmological theory as such. This sort of mistake is made quite often on both sides, by both scientists and non-scientists, and there isn't much point in belaboring it here. I was more interested in something Krauss said later in his essay:
Last May I attended a conference on science and public policy at which a representative of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave a keynote address. When I questioned how he reconciled his own reasonable views about science with the sometimes absurd and unjust activities of the Church--from false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa to pedophilia among the clergy--I was denounced by one speaker after another for my intolerance.
It probably goes without saying that Krauss is not complaining about his martyrdom to the truth, in fact he is reveling in it. Of greater interest is his strange opinion that there is something difficult to reconcile here.

Look carefully at the point where he thinks he has caught his interlocutor out. The Catholic Church, he avers, makes false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa, and there are some priests who are pedophiles. These, I take it, are intended as specific examples of cases where the Church has engaged in "absurd and unjust activities", and these particular cases are then supposed to make it difficult to "reconcile" having, at the same time, "reasonable views about science". We may put aside, for the moment, the fact that his own asseveration about condoms and AIDS in Africa is actually contradicted by the empirical evidence, which rather supports the Church's view; we may also lay aside the fact that the church does not actually support pedophilia, but rather condemns it (though perhaps not fast enough to suit Krauss, but that is irrelevant). These are, perhaps, satisfying rejoinders if one is out to win debating points, but what is more important here is not the refutation of Krauss but the "sad fact" that he thinks he has made some sort of clever inference that establishes the general point he is trying to make.

It seems to me that it can hardly serve to increase public respect for scientists and their powers of reasoning if people like Krauss are the ones put up for consideration. Here, in particular, we have an astonishingly stupid assertion made by someone who is not merely blissfully ignorant of how silly he is making himself look, but quite the contrary, he appears to think he has scored quite a point, and one gets the impression from looking at his personal website that he is unlikely to benefit from training in critical reasoning (it would be unfair to laugh at his belief that he was somehow responsible for the "reevaluation of the Catholic Church's position on evolution", so I will leave it to the reader to explore the many howlers he claims as his own; indeed, an exploration of his website will be a salutary exercise for anyone who worries that they have too high an opinion of themselves--no matter how prideful one may feel, it is always nice to find someone else with an even bigger ego).

Let us take the most obvious mistake here: the claim that a disagreement over an empirical question entails a difficult-to-reconcile attitude towards science and religion. So Krauss happens to accept one set of studies regarding condoms and AIDS in Africa, and some folks in the Church accept another. Again, putting aside the fact that most empirical studies support the Church's view, it is enough to merely point out that scientists disagree among themselves all the time about empirical facts, and it ought to go without saying that scientists differ amongst themselves even more frequently regarding what sort of social policy ought to be enacted given the empirical facts. So there is nothing at all absurd about both having "reasonable views about science" and agreeing with the Church regarding condoms and AIDS in Africa (indeed, given the empirical evidence, it appears rather as though it is Krauss who has a problem with reconciling the facts with his ideology). In short, theoretical questions cannot be settled by observational data alone, the classic problem of underdetermination. This is not unrelated to Krauss's earlier mistake of conflating the notion of a fact with the notion of an explanation: every explanation is theoretical, including explanations that appeal to, say, natural selection or quantum physics. Hence every explanation is in principle falsifiable, but facts are not falsifiable even in principle.

I suspect that the bit about condoms is supposed to be the "absurd" activity of the Church, while the bit about pedophilia is supposed to be the "unjust" activity, but really it is the claim that the Church is unjust when it comes to pedophilia that ought to count as something absurd. What on earth does this even mean? I take it that his central claim here is really nothing more than "the Church has not acted in the way (or, perhaps, as quickly) as I myself would act if I were in charge". That is, of course, the standard of justice held by many people, but it would be pointless to undertake a proof of how ridiculous it is to accuse someone of injustice on grounds of that sort, because those at whom the proof would be directed would be unlikely to benefit from it. It is enough to merely point out that it comes as no surprise that someone whose expertise is physics but who has an ego to match his MIT PhD in physics should be so willing to air his sophomoric views about value theory in a public forum. Putting aside the obvious facts (the Church does oppose pedophilia among the clergy, the Church is taking action against clergy who are pedophiles, etc.) the broader issue is really why we ought to take seriously someone who actually believes this to be a major point in favor of the claim that anyone who agrees with the Church and has "reasonable views about science" has something difficult to reconcile on his hands. One begins to think that when Krauss uses the expression "reasonable views about science" what he really means is "views that are consistent with my own opinions."

Krauss goes on to criticize Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who somehow "excommunicated" Sr. Margaret McBride for her decision in support of an abortion at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix (for a slightly better informed analysis of that, check out my own earlier post on the topic). Again, we may pass over the erroneous details, which are probably due to the fact that Krauss knows nothing about Catholicism (for example, the Bishop did not "excommunicate" her, she excommunicated herself by her action). We may even pass over the fact that in the space of just two sentences Krauss forgets McBride's name, calling her first "Sister Margaret McBride" and then in the very next sentence "Sister Mary". These are, again, just debating points. More important is the glibness with which such ignorance is passed off as magisterial scientific authority, or at the very least as the voice of someone who represents the voice of "reason" in the face of "faith and foolishness".

Krause concludes his condemnation of Bishop Olmsted by saying
Ordinarily, a man who would callously let a woman die and orphan her children would be called a monster; this should not change just because he is a cleric.
This particular sophism is so outrageous as to border on being intellectually offensive. Note, first of all, the deliberate rhetorical re-description of what has happened. A woman with a dangerous condition needed an abortion in order to alleviate the danger to her own health (and possibly to her very life). This set of facts can be described in a lot of different ways, depending upon the particular values one might happen to want to emphasize. One could say that a woman was about to deliberately kill her own innocent child, or that a doctor was about to kill one human being in order to save another one, or that a terribly difficult situation was being faced with great bravery by all around--the way one describes it will be a function of what one happens to think is going on. Krauss casts the situation in terms of the Bishop deliberately letting a woman die, which clearly reflects his own values, but he asserts his view as though it were not a value judgment but a set of facts. Again, one could note that an innocent child was about to be killed, but Krauss chooses instead to talk about the orphaning of children (which ones--the ones that are already safely outside the womb, perhaps?). I suppose that from Krauss's point of view the "facts" are all rather obvious, and this is why he feels no need to address possible arguments that might be directed against him. Indeed, he may describe any attempt to re-describe this situation in a way other than his own way as something "monstrous". But what he has done here is pure sophistry, and it is the sort of sophistry that one could only engage in if one were already in the grips of a theory about what abortion is. Although Krauss continually portrays himself as the voice of reason acting to protect the rest of us from the "irrationality" of the foolish faithful, what we get instead is a pompous rant grounded in nothing more than Krauss's own prejudices. Rather than discuss the difficult moral complexity of the situation, he acts as though it is clear cut: a woman is about to die--there are no other variables at play here. As simplistic and simple-minded as this is, it is not enough for him: he must also paint anyone who disagrees with him as a "monster", because of course when the argument does not go his way invective is the next best thing.

Why on earth should anyone, scientist or non-scientist, take this man seriously once he has made such a spectacle of himself? It seems to me essential, if we are to correct the "sad fact" of scientific illiteracy in the U.S., to put forward thoughtful and intelligent advocates for science. I suppose it is not impossible for an ideologue to be thoughtful and intelligent, but if that conjunction has occurred in Krauss he has done a remarkably good job of hiding it: all one can see here is the blind adherence to ideology, and poorly argued (if argued at all) ideology at that.

The "sad fact" is that there are plenty of well-informed, thoughtful, and intelligent scientists out there who know plenty about value theory, philosophy of science, theology, and related areas, but none of them writes for Scientific American. They are out there (one thinks of Stephen Barr, for example, or Kenneth Miller), but they are in need of a larger public forum. Sadly, many of the popular venues, such as Scientific American, appear to prefer the strident and ideological to the thoughtful and the intelligent.

The tag line of Krauss's essay, "Religious leaders should be held accountable when their irrational ideas turn harmful", is one of those delightful instances of unintentional irony that are happily becoming ever more common in writers of this sort. The good news is that most people don't pay much attention to this sort of thing; the bad news is that some people, including many who ought to know better, find it exhilarating reading. I'm not sure what the prognosis is at this point, but the prescription ought to include wider reading in the relevant literature: philosophy, value theory, intellectual history, theology. The bigger egos won't have room for all those extra books on their shelves, but the honest scholars will, and that ought to give everyone hope.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Science, History, Literature

When I teach introductory level courses in the philosophy of science I find that many students approach the material with a few historical misconceptions that are rather revealing. One of the most common misconception, mentioned by at least one student in every class I have taught on this subject, is the belief that many people believed that the earth was literally flat until the voyages of Columbus. The reason why this is often mentioned in my classes is because one of our discussion topics has to do with the way in which even well-entrenched scientific theories can be replaced by utterly new ones, given the right sort of evidence. So some students think that this belief illustrates that point. "It was once universally (or widely) believed that the earth was flat, but now we know it to be round" is how it usually goes.

In fact there was never any time in Western intellectual history when this was true. There may have been a few individuals here or there who thought that the earth is flat, but the vast majority of scientists, philosophers, theologians, and other interested parties all knew that the earth is roughly spherical. Why do so many students think otherwise? One reason might be because the myth has been repeated by some people who ought to know better. For example, Daniel Boorstin repeats it in his 1983 book The Discoverers, and Boise Penrose mentions it in his 1955 book Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance. So where did this idea come from in the first place? Lesley Cormack has traced it back to a biography of Christopher Columbus written by Washingon Irving (of "Rip Van Winkle" fame). According to Cormack, Irving was trying to portray Columbus as a landmark figure, rather like Copernicus, who by virtue of his voyage of discovery put to rest one more vestige of the so-called "dark ages". In short, it was a piece of propaganda.

Of course, one cannot expect your average undergraduate to be so well-versed in these matters, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that they simply accept whatever they hear along these lines. Unsurprising, but still disappointing, since so many undergraduates these days like to portray themselves as skeptical inquirers after the truth who are not willing to blindly accept everything they are told. It turns out they are just like the rest of us in that regard.

So what sort of remedy is there for this kind of situation? I would like to suggest that one step in the right direction would be to re-integrate the study of the sciences with the study of intellectual history. Many of the best contemporary science writers are people who not only know a lot about science, they know a lot about the history and philosophy of science as well. More importantly, they are sensitive readers who are able to ferret out important details that can aid in the formation of more subtle interpretations of that intellectual history.

There is an interesting illustrative example early on in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In I.3 he writes, in part:
Ireland is far more favored than Britain by latitude, and by its mild and healthy climate. Snow rarely lies longer than three days, so that there is no need to store hay in summer for winter use or to build stables for beasts. There are no reptiles, and no snake can enter there; for although often brought over from Britain, as soon as the ship nears land, they breathe the scent of its air, and die. In fact, almost everything in this isle confers immunity to poison, and I have seen that folk suffering from snake-bite have drunk water in which scrapings from the leaves of books from Ireland have been steeped, and that this remedy checked the spreading poison and reduced the swelling.
The last sentence of this report, in particular, is apt to make one roll one's eyes at the credulity of an earlier age, but H. Mayr-Harting, in his book The Coming of Christianity, has argued at some length that in fact this passage is not meant to be taken seriously, but is rather a parody, by Bede, of the sort of pseudo-scientific writing common in his day. Seeing this requires knowing, first of all, that Bede was a rather witty writer not above making jokes or parodies, and also knowing about the pseudo-scientific literature that he would have had access to. Again, this is not the sort of thing that we can expect just anybody to know off-hand, but clearly knowledge of this sort of thing would make a difference in how one interprets this passage of Bede.

I suspect that there are many such misapprehensions abroad. I think that much contemporary discussion of the conflict between Galileo and the Church, for example, suffers from a lack of full information on both sides, and that even when it comes to such obvious non-problems as the "conflict" between evolution and intelligent design, or anthropogenic climate change, the clearer heads are the ones who understand fully what sorts of issues are at stake on all sides and who, more importantly, are careful enough to know the difference between principled arguments and ideological scrums. This requires wide reading, and a careful assessment of merits of the arguments on all sides. The intellectual acumen required to accomplish this ranges more widely, I am afraid, than the typical training either in the sciences or the humanities can give. A broader education is required, and those who are fluent in both will have the best chance of making an accurate assessment of the situation.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ectopic Pregnancy and Double Effect

Last month Sr. Margaret McBride, an ethical consultant at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, was declared excommunicate by Bishop Thomas Olmsted on the grounds that she had cooperated in the procurement of abortion (apparently by giving the procedure her approval as ethical consultant). McBride defended her decision on the grounds that the life of the mother was at risk (she suffered from pulmonary hypertension, which put her at risk for eclampsia; her condition is sometimes referred to as pre-eclampsia. Eclampsia can be life-threatening, though pre-eclampsia rarely is--unless, of course, it leads to eclampsia). She appealed to the Church's teaching that only direct abortion is gravely sinful; indirect abortion (abortion in which the death of the fetus is not intended, though it may be foreseen) is regarded as, at least in principle, something that can be morally licit under the right conditions.

The basic idea here is to appeal to the principle of double effect, but it is not at all clear that pre-eclampsia constitutes a sufficient condition for invoking that principle. For one thing, pre-eclampsia, in itself, simply isn't as life-threatening as the principle would require. Second, even if the condition were life-threatening, it isn't clear that the principle would apply to this sort of case.

In a statement released in late June, the United States Bishops' Committee on Doctrine drew a distinction between kinds of cases based upon the nature of the threat to the mother's life. They gave the following examples to illustrate the distinction. In one sort of case, we are to imagine a woman whose organs are experiencing problems as a consequence of the added burden of pregnancy; in the other sort of case, we are to imagine a woman with cancer of the uterus. According to the document, the former case is not sufficient to render licit an abortion to save the life of the mother, because to remove the fetus in order to save the mother's life is a direct killing of a human being in order to save the life of another, and this is not permitted by Catholic moral theory: we may not do wrong in order to bring about good. In the latter case, the removal of the cancerous uterus is what is directly intended, and the death of the fetus, though foreseeable, is not intended, so the principle of double effect applies. It is difficult to avoid drawing the inference that, when it is the mother's own organs that threaten her life, they may be removed even if doing so kills another human being who is lurking therein; but when it is another human being who threatens the mother's life, that human being may not be killed, even if it is hiding in one of the mother's organs.

The case of ectopic pregnancy, in light of the directive from the Committee on Doctrine, is particularly interesting. Some Catholics have thought that an ectopic pregnancy is a clear case in which abortion to save the life of the mother would be licit under the principle of double-effect. But clearly not, if the distinction drawn by the Bishops' Committee is correct. In the case of ectopic pregnancy there is nothing organically wrong with the fallopian tube, so it is not analogous to the case of the cancerous utuerus. Instead, the fetus has become lodged in the fallopian tube, and the only way to save the life of the mother is to either (a) remove the fetus from the fallopian tube, which would be a clear case of a direct abortion and hence illicit; or (b) remove the entire fallopian tube, with the fetus in it. It is this latter scenario, (b), that those Catholics who defend this procedure as licit point to as the case covered by the principle of double effect. Their thinking is that the intention is to save the life of the mother, not to kill the fetus, and they save the life of the mother by removing, not the fetus, but the fallopian tube. The death of the fetus is, of course, foreseeable in this scenario, but since it is not intended, these folk reason, it is licit because covered by double effect. But according to the distinction drawn by the Bishops the removal of the fallopian tube cannot be seen as anything other than the removal of the fetus, since the fallopian tube itself is in no need of being removed, and certainly would not need to be removed if there were not a fetus lodged in it. If a stone had become lodged in the fallopian tube there is little doubt that the procedure would be referred to as the removal of the stone and not as the removal of a fallopian tube that just happened to have a stone in it.

Fortunately ectopic pregnancy is extremely rare, occurring in less than 2% of all pregnancies, though it is, apparently, on the rise: it has increased sixfold since 1970. Most patients that present with ectopic pregnancy have no identifiable risk factor, so the temptation to blame the rise of the condition on increasing use of fertility treatments (also frowned upon by Catholic moral theory) must be resisted. However, I won't resist the temptation to report the following (from MedScape):
One study has demonstrated that infertility patients with luteal phase defects have a statistically higher ectopic pregnancy rate than patients whose infertility is caused by anovulation. The risk of ectopic pregnancy and heterotopic pregnancy (ie, pregnancies occurring simultaneously in different body sites) dramatically increases when a patient has used assisted reproductive techniques to conceive, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) or gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT). In a study of 3000 clinical pregnancies achieved through in vitro fertilization, the ectopic pregnancy rate was 4.5%, which is more than double the background incidence. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that up to 1% of pregnancies achieved through IVF or GIFT can result in a heterotopic gestation, compared to an incidence of 1 in 30,000 pregnancies for spontaneous conceptions.
So apparently the only method of saving the life of the mother in the case of an ectopic pregnancy is not actually morally licit, according to the most recent statement by the United States Bishops. Not all Catholics commentators have argued that it is licit, but those who have will now have to rethink their arguments.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...