Easy fall guy

A recent task force on abortion in South Dakota came to the conclusion that ‘the new recombinant DNA technologies indisputably prove that the unborn child is a whole human being from the moment of fertilisation’. That was news to Archimedes, and to many reproductive biologists as well. And the indisputable pronouncement of the task force was immediately disputed.

The South Dakota report, which served as the basis for the introduction of tough state legislation cracking down on abortion, reads like another example of ideological conservatives selectively using the results of science to bolster their cause. The irony is that, despite all protestations to the contrary, biology can provide no unequivocal, objective starting point for a human life.

Biology can certainly document the process of human reproduction, but whether human life begins at conception, or when an embryo begins to feel pain, or when it becomes conscious, or when it becomes independent, or when it gains a soul, these are not scientific but moral questions, which we ourselves have to decide. And while science can provide evidence to inform such decisions, it actually has nothing to say about what is right or what is wrong.

That’s why, as a Christian steeped in science, Archimedes has never had any real problem reconciling the two. To him, they are two different perspectives on the world. While science tries to model the universe as it is, theology helps with deeper questions of good and evil, the purpose of life, the universe and everything.

But the very amorality of science is what makes it such a juicy target for ideological hardliners, religious or political. People driven by unswerving faith have little time for a process such as science, based on probability and doubt. In fact, for them, science becomes an easy fall guy.

We are now seeing this played out all around us as the US neocons take on climate change, fundamentalists fight abortion and evolution, and the Vatican tries to downplay the role of condoms in countering the spread of AIDS. In all these cases, science is not the real opponent, just the messenger providing ammunition.

It’s the very strength of the scientific method—the fact that nothing is sacred, and everything is tested—that becomes both evil and weak in the face of ideologues. Science is evil precisely because it is amoral and dares to question even the unquestionable, and it is weak because it can never take a firm, unswerving stand against any idea. That would be against its very nature.

So, after a couple of hundred years of respect since the Age of Reason, science is now being abused. Nowadays, it’s so easy to shoot the messenger. Whether it be abortion, or global warming, or nuclear power, whatever side you are on you can usually find some scientific evidence which supports you. Then the game is simply to denigrate all other evidence.

And that’s really the problem with the current crop of political and religious fundamentalists. They tend to believe that the end justifies the means, and that if science doesn’t agree with their end, then that’s science’s problem.

Archimedes finds the morality of a religious or political viewpoint which can justify distorting and ignoring scientific research questionable at the least, and more often downright frightening and dangerous.

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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