Evolution Medicine Science

Medicine and evolution, part 5: “Quit whining” about intelligent design?

One annoying thing about the blogosphere for someone like me is that a lot of things that I want to write about pop up during the day, when I’m at work. Blogging is all about immediacy and time. Wait too long to write about a topic, and the moment’s passed. For me, by the time I get home in the evening, even though someone may have e-mailed me an article that they thought I’d like to comment on, I often find myself refraining from jumping into the fray, simply because so many have already commented on it already. This problem is magnified (for me, at least) by belonging to ScienceBlogs, because a lot of my fellow ScienceBloggers like to write about the same sorts of topics. Since we’re all aggregated together in a big lump of sciencebloggy goodness on the main page, that means you’ll often see multiple articles by different members of our collective about the same topic all listed together. I sometimes joke about how the fact that every blogger and his grandmother have already commented on an issue “never stopped me before,” but that’s only mostly true.

This was almost one of those articles that I passed by for those reasons. After all, Tara has already done a fine job of commenting on it. However, I think she was a bit too kind with Robert Bazell,, Chief Science and Health Correspondent for MSNBC, and his article, “Quit Whining About Intelligent Design.”

It’s time to apply a little Respectful Insolence™ to this article. However, because, as Tara points out, Bazell is not doing an ID hit piece, as I had first feared upon seeing the title, it will be mostly respectful. However, I disagree with Tara that overall “it’s a really good piece.” It had the potential to be really good, but squandered it its potential on an overarching false dichotomy that is at the root of Bazell’s argument:

Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values. The thought occurred to me recently when I was attending my son’s medical school commencement.

Following the well-trod path of a graduation speech, the dean, a highly regarded physician and scientist, told the new MDs they would face many challenges. These included, he said, a world where science endured constant assault as evidenced by the recent attempts to bring “intelligent design” into the curricula of Dover, Pa., and other high school districts.

Young physicians will indeed have a tough time of it.

It’s a bad sign that Bazell starts right off explicitly stating the very false dichotomy that the article embodies. Why, for instance, does Bazel apparently assume that scientists have to stop “whining” about ID before they can discuss “values” to his liking? There is nothing that says that both can’t be discussed and emphasized? I don’t think it’s a straw man to characterize the above statement as essentially arguing that we as scientists have to deemphasize our resistance to the introduction of ID into places it doesn’t belong (like high school science classrooms) in order to discuss “values.” He continues:

For example, what are the life-saving limits of expensive high-technology treatments? When have they accepted too many promotional gifts from pharmaceutical companies? Should an experiment be done on humans just because researchers have the tools to try it?

Teaching evolution properly in secondary school will have little impact on these difficult issues.

Uh, sure. I’ll agree with him there. (I’ll also agree with Gavin, who, while commenting on this article, points out another thing, particularly dear to him, that evolution will have little impact on.) The teaching of evolutionwouldn’t be expected to have an effect on how we as physicians use expensive high technology, accept gifts from big pharma, or conduct clinical trials. So what? Indeed, it almost sounds as though Bazell’s constructing a strawman argument, because I don’t recall ever having seen critics of ID (like myself) make the argument that the teaching of evolution properly in secondary schools would have an impact on any of these issues.

Bazell then goes off on a tangent about William Jennings Bryan and his war against evolution that fundamentalist Christians continue to this day. Worse, he even swallows whole the “evolution led to Hitler” canard:

Bryan knew that the notion of “survival of the fittest”, or natural selection, had been used by German generals, many of whom had been academic scientists and doctors, to justify their increasing desire to dominate Europe. (Hitler would later rely on it as rationale for his racial horrors.)

I can’t help but point out to him that Hitler actually used more of a “divine right” argument:

Thus, it [the volkish philosophy] by no means believes in an equality of races, but along with their difference it recognizes their higher or lesser value and feels itself obligated, through this knowledge, to promote the victory of the better and stronger, and demand the subordination of the inferior and weaker in accordance with the eternal will that dominates this universe.

You now, the above quote sounds more compatible with “intelligent design” to me than evolution, truth be told. Indeed, Hitler’s ideas with regard to race were more akin to the kind of selective breeding that farmers had been doing for centuries before Darwin’s birth. Either way, Bazell’s invocation of Hitler is just as irrelevant to Bazell’s apparent argument as his invocation of Bryan. Even if Hitler were a died-in-the-wool evolutionist and misused evolution to justify his genocide, that doesn’t change its validity, nor does it justify the ignorance of those who use that comparison to push pseudoscience. Remember, Hitler also used all sorts of appeals to God and Christianity and destiny to justify his horrific acts. Funny how you never hear such analogies brought up by ID advocates. He also used a lot of analogies between races and pathogens, calling the “Jewish race” a “bacillus” that needed to be eradicated, as in an infectious disease, to “cure” the volk of its effects:

For us, this is not a problem you can turn a blind eye to–one to be solved by small concessions. For us, it is a problem of whether our nation can ever recover its health, whether the Jewish spirit can ever really be eradicated. Don’t be misled into thinking you can fight a disease without killing the carrier, without destroying the bacillus. Don’t think you can fight racial tuberculosis without taking care to rid the nation of the carrier of that racial tuberculosis.

Or how about this quote by Hitler:

Only when this Jewish bacillus infecting the life of peoples has been removed can one hope to establish a co-operation amongst the nations which shall be built up on a lasting understanding.

Indeed, as Robert Proctor pointed out, National Socialists viewed themselves as the “physicians” whose duty it was to tend not to individual patients but to the German volk. I’m betting that Bazell wouldn’t have parrotted so uncritically a claim that Pasteur’s germ theory was responsible for Hitler, but he swallowed the canard about Hitler’s somehow relying on Darwin’s theory as justification for eugenics and genocide.

Overall, the best synthesis of Bazell’s meandering argument is that he seems to be saying that refuting ID vigorously won’t win any converts. Boo hoo. Indeed, he even likens scientists these days to the “elites” on the coasts who poo-pooed Bryan in his day:

More important for the legacy of the cause, many newspaper accounts, especially from big cities of the north, portrayed Bryan and his followers as a bunch of illiterate yokels who had been utterly defeated.

The famous Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken called Bryan, who died a week after the trial, “a tin pot pope in the Coca-Cola belt.”

Such venom did not persuade Bryan’s followers to give up the cause. Quite the opposite.

Of course, no amount of sugary language or compromise has persuaded Bryan’s followers and their descendents to give up the cause, either. Nor could it. Religiously inspired beliefs are stubbornly resistant to alteration.

To Bazell’s credit, he is definitely no creationist, nor is he an ID adherent. He goes on to describe quite accurately how creationism was defeated in the courts and then begat intelligent design, which was then defeated last December in Judge Jone’s decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, stating, “Serious efforts in biology and medicine can no more ignore evolution than airplane designers can ignore gravity.” True enough. But then why does he castigate scientists thusly:

Many scientists have been gloating in the wake of Judge Jones’ decision, but that will serve their purpose no better than did the ridicule of Bryan and his followers more than 80 years ago.

And can’t we all just get along? Please?

He concludes:

It is hard to believe that — whatever the outcome in the many evolution battles — we will stop worrying that the H5N1 bird flu virus might evolve into something easily transmissible among humans.

It is far more difficult to know what moral values should guide our decisions, and perhaps we should put more effort into helping students grasp that reality.

After a long ramble that never really ties together the concepts that Bazell wants to tie together, here we are again. Start with a false dichotomy; end with the same false dichotomy. Sandwiched in between is nothing but a bunch of non sequiturs that fail to tie them together. Effort in promoting “values” (whatever that means) needn’t come at the expense of promoting sound science.

I would respond in part that a medical student who hasn’t mastered the basics of human biology, including how evolution has shaped that biology, will have inadequate information upon which to base his or her moral decisions as a physician. Tara makes a good point when she points out that the downfall of this article is how medicine-centric it all is. Bazell seems to think that biologists all exist to train medical students and do biomedical research, when in fact, biomedicine is a relatively small (albeit very important) subset of biology and evolution the overarching “theory of everything” that underpins modern biology. In addition, biologists don’t think the same way most doctors do, as I have pointed out before. The second part of my response would be to point out that it’s in medicine’s self-interest (and the interest of society as a whole) for us to do everything we can to encourage the teaching of sound science in the high school science classroom, rather than allowing its dilution by the introduction of religion-inspired pseudoscience.

Finally, the last part of my response would be: Whose values are we talking about here? Are we talking about the values of a specific religious ideology based on a specific reading of a specific holy book that leads its adherents to try to impose the “science” of ID inspired by their religion on not just their children but on all children in the public schools in the districts where this has been an issue? Is it “values” to sit back and let one group represent its religion to all as science? The term “values” as Bazell uses it is so vague as to be meaningless. Unless he gets specific about what values he is referring to, it’s a catch-phrase, a feel-good mantra, nothing more. After all, who could be against teaching “values”?

Note that I am not in any way denigrating the importance of teaching “values.” However, Bazell’s use of the term is really sloppy, and I suspect that in reality what he really means is that he wants medical schools to teach more “ethics.” He seems to be confusing the two terms, perhaps not realizing that ethics is not the same thing as “values” or personal morality, as Eric Loewy points out:

Ethics is not the same as personal morality. When we disagree about the treatment of a specific disease, we do agree on an authority that will give us the right answer. When, however, we disagree about ethics, there is no “authority” that we can generally agree upon. We come from different backgrounds, different (or no) religious convictions, and different experiences, and, therefore, we are apt to hold quite different views about what course of action is ethically acceptable. We are left either with imposing our moral views on another because we have the power to do so or to discuss the matter with logic, experience, history, religion, and precedent to help guide us in our actions

In other words, ethics is a framework through which we as physicians can accommodate disparate personal moralities (or “values,” as Bazell seems to be using the term) and decide on a course of action that maximizes beneficence and patient autonomy in our decisions.

And, of course, bioethics, the branch of ethics that deals with medicine, has little to do with what many scientists do, although it has a lot to do with what we as doctors do. These days, it’s also a prominent part of the curriculum in nearly every medical school. For Bazell to castigate scientists for not teaching ethics is sloppy thinking on his part. For him to state, in essence, that academic physicians and scientists can emphasize ethics more only at the cost of combatting ID less vigorously is even worse. Basically, Bazell’s piece is essentially incoherent and doesn’t give the medical profession much credit. Indeed, he seems to think that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

And this guy is the Chief Science and Health Correspondent for MSNBC?

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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