21 December 2010

Gosh, Were Our Ancestors STUPID.

AL Daily linked to an interesting project over at Edge.org: a collection of now-disproven commonly held beliefs, scientific or otherwise.  It was a fun exercise to guess at some of the presuppositions and pet peeves of the contributors based on the paragraphs submitted.  There seems to be a wide range of respondents from many different disciplines, though there is certainly a bias toward standing aghast at some of the "scientifically driven" medical theories that were way, way off the mark.

One in particular caught my attention, not so much on account of its thinly veiled hostility to the influence of the churches on public policy (that sentiment was actually quite common, from what I found) but the preposterous inconsistency of his reasoning.  Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán had some strong words about the reprehensible practices of phrenology and lobotomy:

Science affects people's lives directly. A scientific mistake can send you to jail or break your brain into pieces. It also seems to affect the kinds of moral stances that we adopt. Today, it would be morally reprehensible to send someone to jail because of the shape of his head, or to perform a lobotomy. However, 50 or 100 years ago it was morally acceptable.
Up to this point, I was in complete agreement.  Specious and hastily adopted hypotheses that sow destruction or debilitation of human life in their wake are a tragedy of our modern era and a powerful counterweight to every breathless paean to The Cures That Science Will One Day Bring Us, Provided We Just Compromise On This One Little Point.  But what came next absolutely floored me:
This is why we should spend more time thinking of practical issues, like scientific principles, scientific models and scientific predictions as a basis for public health and policy decisions, rather than guessing about what is right or wrong according to god's mind or the unsubstantiated beliefs presented by special interest groups.
I guess I'm not clear on whose idea lobotomy was.  Is "driving an icepick into the eye socket to disconnect the prefrontal cortex" a recommended therapy in the Bible?  Was this a medieval practice revived in the 1940s by a quack New-Age physiologist working out of his ashram, or the Nobel Prize-winning technique developed by Antonio Egas Moniz?

I agree that caution should be exercised... but you can't argue that religious influences have been the most heinous abusers of technological power in contemporary times.  Speaking from a Catholic perspective, the byline is when in doubt, defer to human dignity--where dignity is understood not as the absolute right to self-determination but the incommunicable and incomparable value that belongs to a unique instance of God's creative love.  Centuries from now, when civilization looks back in wonder at how we were able to justify to ourselves the taking of unborn human life as a matter of routine, where will the responsibility lay?   At the feet of the Churches who insist that there is nothing that can outweigh innocent life, or the laboratories and clinics that proceeded with abandon, heedless of the human cost?

Anyway, if that doesn't convince you, maybe this will:

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