Thursday, June 29, 2006

Close the Windows on Eugenics

Here is another reason to stay away from Windows software - as if you needed another. This came out after Warren Buffett anounced he would give Bill Gates' charity a mountain of money:
Fr. Thomas J. Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, issued a statement pointing out Buffett's track record of supporting pro-abortion organizations and related projects in the developing world. He reported that Buffett's foundation also gave a grant to the U.S.- based Center for Reproductive Rights, which fought bans on partial- birth abortion, and Catholics for a Free Choice. "The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have also given millions of dollars to organizations pushing abortion around the world," Fr. Euteneuer reported.
I have no idea why Gates and Buffett support the organizations they do, but I suspect it might be something along these lines:
Nature is astonishingly cruel. Science, by contrast, has the power of mercy. One can only be dazzled by the inventiveness and compassion of the scientists involved in this [embryonic] screening breakthrough... Admittedly genetic screening means that embryos carrying disabilities and diseases will be discarded. It is a stretch, however, to use the word destroyed, or even killed, as the test is done on embryos that are only three days old. And what is appealing about this early screening is that it offers the hope that, in the foreseeable future, abortion and late abortion will be less frequently used in dealing with serious defects and disabilities. It will be easier and better in every way to get rid of a tiny collection of cells. This is indeed playing God, as all the usual campaigners were quick to point out last week. But what on earth is wrong with humans playing God? I am all for it, especially as God doesn't seem to be doing it.
This sort of muddle headed bafflegab is such a sickly sweet confection that it seems brains are not an adequate defense against it. Minette Martin, who wrote this in the Times UK, seems to think that an abortion performed on a embryo three days old is somehow - she does not explain how - not an abortion. She neglects to say at what point an abortion is in fact an abortion, or how she arrived at her conclusions. She goes on to disparage disabled people who point out that they are quite happy to be alive, even if the nature of their existence troubles Martin's conscience. Martin, for her part, tries to escape her disabled critics by saying that she thinks no less of them but if they were less than three days old, she'd flush them down the toilet and never think twice about it. So much for intellect uber alles. The bedrock of Martin's argument lies in the claim about the non human nature of the three day old embryo, but this is not a claim built on science. Martin, if she was truly a critical thinker, would know this.

This essay on Critical Thinking today observes that:

... we teach science as a collection of facts and theories about a certain category of phenomena, rather than as a set of principles for understanding the world. A course in "Science, Pseudoscience, and Anti-science" would stimulate broader critical thought than the typical Chemistry 101 class. But the problem is deeper than this. Full-blown critical thinking is not coterminous with good scientific thinking. Critical thought is the principles of scientific thought projected to the far reaches of everyday life, with all the attendant demands and complications. This expansive generalization of the scientific method is hardly spontaneous or self-evident for most people. Just as learning the truth about Santa does not shatter the typical child's credulous worldview, learning the principles of science can easily fail to fully penetrate the larger vision of science students-and indeed, of scientists. By themselves, science classrooms are poor competition for the powerful obstacles to highly developed critical thinking that reside in human social life and in the wiring of the human brain. ... It is naive to expect social-science education, natural-science education, or education in general-at least in their present forms-to elevate critical thinking to something more than a pedagogical fashion that everyone applauds but few conceptualize very deeply. This leaves the skeptical community. We identify ourselves as champions of science and reason. But this is a broad mandate. We should avoid concentrating our skepticism too narrowly on the realms of superstition, pseudoscience, and the supernatural-for the ultimate challenge to a critical thinker is posed not by weird things but by insidiously mundane ones. If we hope to realize the promise of critical thought, it is important that skeptics affirm a multidimensional definition of critical thinking -- reasoning skills, skeptical worldview, values of a principled juror -- that exempts no aspect of social life.
This is all well and good. I endorse a good deal of what Howard Gabennesch has written here, and I'm heartened to see that he's broadened the circle of his criticism to include things that seem obvious, or which the culture has glommed onto. Unlike Gabennesch, however, I do not think there is a neutral ground from which to begin this process. One simply can't be skeptical about everything.To cite an obvious example in his essay, Gabennesch endorses Dawkins' three skeptical points:
1. Skeptics do not believe easily. They have outgrown childlike credulity to a greater extent than most adults ever do. 2. When skeptics take a position, they do so provisionally. They understand that their knowledge on any subject is fallible, incomplete, and subject to change. 3. Skeptics defer to no sacred cows. They regard orthodoxies as the mortal enemy of critical thought-all orthodoxies, including those that lie close to home.
Is there anything provisional in his endorsement of these points?

On the contrary, he is quite dogmatic in this "skeptic's orthodoxy". In number three especially, he's in the position of a doctor who needs to heal himself first. Since there is no obvious way to do this, I think it best to admit that one chooses to believe in capital T Truth and in rationality and all that is bundled up with it.

To bring us back to the beginning, one chooses to value human life. There is no intellectual proof for it. Because we choose to value human life, most of us would not agree to bomb a house if there might be someone inside it. Buffett, Gates and Martin have all avoided this non rational but still reasonable constraint by saying that they know the house is empty. Let's be real critical thinkers and ask how they know this to be true - ask them how it is that this is not a sacred cow or wishful thinking on their part. And if it is a sacred cow - one that competes with placing a high value on human life, why should we choose it when doing so places all of us at risk? A serious brain injury is not hard to come by.The stakes on this question are high. Let's not be hasty or sloppy in answering it; let's affirm that we stand behind one another as human beings. We hear it often enough, but the follow through is questionable. We need to be more critical not less, and really hear the arguments - even the one that gets maligned in most of the public press.