Saturday, February 10, 2007

In the absence of a theism, scientism often rushes in to fill the vacuum.

A while ago I caught, on the Scientific American podcast, part of Michael Bloomberg's commencement address to JHU's medical school. If ever I dreamed of a nigh-utopia ruled by scientists, Bloomberg's speech woke me up.

Don't get me wrong; I still think the average American needs more science education, and more sophisticated science education. I just think that Bloomberg's speech made it plenty clear that "more science" isn't "enough."

Some of his bullet items are no-brainers to anyone who's been around the Catholic circuits at all. I realized that many of them were extrascientific long ago, but I had fallen into the trap of assuming--probably not with the best justification--that common sense was, well, common.

Now, if everyone just upped their science quotient when it comes to voting and public policy discussion, we'd make great strides. However, there were a few things Bloomberg cited that put the lie to his science-as-panacea thesis:

  • Terri Schiavo

  • global warming

  • funding of stem cell research

He also mentioned how ID, as gussied-up creationism, does a disservice to science by masquerading as it, and to theology by conflating the two; but he still betrayed a penchant for utilitarianism.

You can make valid arguments from utilitarianism, and make different ones from existentialism or some other school of thought that may contradict or not even intersect with the utilitarian ones, but just advocating a purely practical or existential position isn't the same thing as using the logical bedrock upon which all philosophy rests, nor can it (or logic) guarantee truth or goodness as its object.

Obviously, bridging part of the gap between "more science" and "enough knowledge to get the job done well" is some basic philosophy, so people can recognize what informs an argument when they see it. In addition, though, I think fundamental critical thinking skills in addition to "X is utilitarianism, Y is stoicism, etc." is essential. I started learning critical thinking when I was ten years old, in a public school no less; I didn't get to differing philosophical schools until I was in tenth grade. Not that I was precocious, but in the state of today's education, most students don't get to the latter until college when they need to fill some general education requirement, and most students never get to the former. It can't be that hard to add a little elementary logic to a curriculum (just showing students half a dozen propaganda techniques and a dozen common logical fallacies should be enough to get us past the "expert juror" hazard in public discourse).

Anyway, I just wanted to touch on the three examples Bloomberg gave, especially the last one.

The Terri Schiavo bit was typical "society has no compelling interest in preserving her, so look--but not too closely--to her husband." Terri wasn't dying, she just didn't have any usefulness left in her. I suppose the pro-euthanasia types also felt some irony, but I was a little disappointed to see so many people making the libertarian argument, that the federal government shouldn't get involved in saving one sick woman's life.

Global warming I've said enough about. Suffice it to say his "what we now know about water being wet and the sun rising" panegyrics to the environmentalist lobby were about as edifying as an Enzyte commercial.

As for stem cell research, the problem isn't stem cells themselves--which is old news I'm not afraid to repeat. The problem is in killing babies to get the embryonic kind. Last I heard, we have around 95 therapies currently in use--at least as effective clinical trials--from adult and umbilical cord blood stems cells, including a functioning coin-sized liver in a petri dish. The embryonics have yielded nothing so far except tumors.

If Bloomberg--or anyone--is so hot and bothered for really helping people, curing life-threatening diseases, then why isn't he more interested in the most practical solution, the one we've already got?

A bird in the hand, Mr. Mayor.

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