Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Gerson War On Reality

Michael Gerson's in a tizzy because Hillary Clinton has accused the Republican Party of "conducting a 'war on science.'" He quickly names three civil servants, one of whom earned his position under Clinton and another of whom received his two most recent promotions under Carter (Chief of the Laboratory of Immunoregulation for the NIH) and Reagan (Director of NIAID), whom he claims to have stellar scientific records.

Um... wow? Way to defend (either) Bush?

And, because we haven't had enough of this type of mindlessness lately,
Any ethical question about the destruction of human embryos to harvest their cells is dismissed as "theological" and thus illegitimate.
Okay... by whom? Where and when? Should we hold our breath waiting for your answer?
Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled "anti-science."
I didn't realize that it was "anti-science" to have practical concerns over the documented failure of "abstinence only" sex education, but there you go. Now if your concern is that there's scientific content in sex education, and you prefer to omit that science from sex education programs in favor of the discredited theory that "abstinence-only education" works? Now that would be anti-science.

That "abstinence only" agenda was anti-science even before "abstinence-only" education was discredited, as there was never any data to support "abstinence-only" education as a viable alternative. You want to talk scientific ethics? How about the Bush Administration's using our nation's schoolchildren as lab rats for that failed social science experiment? May I please at least see the "informed consent" forms?
Liberal views are "objective" while traditional moral convictions are "biased."
Surely even Gerson can construct a better straw man than that.
Public scrutiny of scientific practices is "politicizing" important decisions.
Oh... I guess not.
These arguments are seriously made, but they are not to be taken seriously.
An ambiguous reference. If he means, "The fake arguments I'm presently raising," for once he's right on the money.

And of course we devolve into this type of claptrap, popular with dishonest right-wingers:
Without a firm, morally grounded belief in equality, liberalism has been led down some dark paths. The old, progressive eugenics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries involved widespread sterilization of the mentally disabled as a form of social hygiene.
We can start by pointing out that just because a historic group called itself "progressive" and that's the new preferred term in a lot of circles for the term, "liberal", doesn't mean the two are one and the same. Further, if Gerson had any idea what he was talking about, he would understand that when eugenics movements were at their peak they were broadly embraced by society, even by people he would have to grudgingly concede were "conservatives".

Gerson argues that parents' decisions to abort Down syndrome babies
highlights a real conflict, a war within liberalism between the idea of unrestricted science in the cause of health and the principle that all men are created equal - between humanitarianism and egalitarianism.
Yet he doesn't explain how. Do you suppose he has evidence that parents who self-classify as conservatives don't choose abortion when they learn that they are expecting a Down syndrome child? Well, he says, "In America, the lives of about nine of 10 children with Down syndrome are ended before birth." So either Gerson has to admit that American conservatives are a big part of what he describes as the problem, or argue that significantly less than 10% of Americans are "conservative."

I guess there's one more possibility: He could be arguing that while liberals fret over the conflict between humanitarianism and egalitarianism, conservatives are skipping the debate and heading straight to Planned Parenthood.
Nazism largely discredited the old eugenics. But a new eugenics - the eugenics of genetic screening and abortion, the eugenics of genetic selection in the process of in vitro fertilization - is alive and well. Its advocates contend that the new eugenics is superior because it is voluntary instead of compulsory, and unrelated to race.
Posing some questions to Mr. Gerson:

Who are these "advocates"? Where can I find these statements you attribute to them? Do they truly compare "genetic selection in the process of in vitro fertilization" to Nazi-style eugenics? Oh, I know, hyperbole - nobody is really making such a comparison or statement. So let's ask a question that ignores your attempt to conflate genetic screening with Nazism. You're not claiming that these "advocates" are liberal - what are their politics? And the people paying for these services - people who are wealthy enough to afford cutting edge infertility treatment and genetic testing - what are their politics?

I'm also curious as to how you distinguish in vitro fertilization involving genetic testing from the traditional variety. Either way, a number of eggs are fertilized for implantation, but most of those fertilized eggs are discarded. The difference, then, is that with genetic screening certain birth defects are eliminated, which should significantly reduce the abortion rate.

After that rhetorical exercise, I am left with three obvious questions for Mr. Gerson:
  • Are you opposed to all in vitro fertilization, given that with or without genetic testing the number of viable embryos that are not implanted are roughly equal?
  • Are you stating that it's more "moral" to forego genetic screening and discard a healthy, viable embryo than it is to employ genetic screening and improve the chances of a genetically normal child? (That's a subject ripe for debate - I'm just trying to figure out if you're trying to engage us in that debate or, as seems to be the case, foreclose it by suggesting that anybody who would engage in genetic screening is tantamount to a Nazi eugenicist.)
  • Leaving aside for the moment the psychological and medical toll on an expectant mother, do you believe that there's no difference between having an embryo expire without ever being implanted and having a fetus aborted in the first or second trimester - and if you do see a difference, unless you believe the former is worse, why are you suggesting that doctors who help avoid that second outcome are tantamount to Nazi eugenicists?
Gerson clarifies,
The point here is not to catch liberalism in an inconsistency.
Well, that's probably for the best. Because if that were the point, Gerson would look even more the fool.

Meanwhile, Gerson might benefit from brushing up on the non-scientific positions taken by the Bush Administration, even while he was hacking away as a speechwriter for G.W., on such topics as sex education, global warming, "intelligent design", misrepresentation of the viability of stem cell lines, etc. Because if he really wants to make the case that Republicans care about science, his former paymasters have a lot of explaining to do.


  1. Nice post--I wrote something similar. In addition to all of the things you point out, Gerson seems to be guilty of two confusions: (1) fact/value and (2) fact/policy recommendation. (1) happens at the end (NAZIS OMFG!!); the first at the beginning. One can disagree about the best policy path, but that's a rather different question from whether the scientific facts are as they are.

  2. I have never seen a more facile and blatant disregard for Goodwin's Law. Equating neo-natal testing with the Holocaust is beyond the pale.

  3. Gerson seems to be guilty of two confusions: (1) fact/value and (2) fact/policy recommendation.

    Good point. Either confusions or conflations; either way it's faulty reasoning.