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Wisdom, not the Geek Squad Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 12 December 2011

Last week, the Obama Administration decided to ignore the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and not allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B, the morning-after pill, to girls under seventeen. A firestorm ensued among pro-abortion groups who wondered why HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, “a hero to the pro-choice community,” according to one Democrat, “ignored the science.”

I myself am not much interested whether this was 1) a political sop to Catholics and other Christians despite the Democratic base’s outrage, or 2) as the president put it, simply an application of “common sense” (having two young daughters in America today is sobering).Things happened to go right this time, despite the involvement of our ambitious Catholic HHS secretary, which usually spells doom for the unborn.

No, to me, far more worrisome over the long haul is that one of Obama’s first executive orders was that “we will use science to guide decisions and not politics.” And what science, precisely, guided the FDA? Decades of careful follow-up of underage Plan B users to see if over-the-counter availability produced medical, social, psychological, or – dare one say – moral problems?

Well, can’t use that data – as you would in a real scientific study – because it doesn’t exist.

The Plan B’s manufacturers are more candid:  “When taken as directed – within  72 hours (3 days) after contraceptive failure or unprotected intercourse – approximately  seven out of eight women who would have gotten pregnant will not become pregnant after taking Plan B® One-Step.” So, if you’re underage and had sex expecting to take care of things afterwards based on the scientific authority of the FDA, sorry if you’re among one of the one in eight girls who may get pregnant. And there’s much more.

“Science,” of course, can’t say anything at all about a decision like this. Can studies show that girls who take Plan B don’t hemorrhage to death or develop uterine cancer? Sure. But the question here is not obvious side effects, but whether to allow minors to take pills fraught with wide-reaching implications, with no input from parents – or anyone.

I don’t know who sat on the FDA panel that made that recommendation. But you might guess that they were people very good in math and science, but didn’t get out much when they were young. Because any adult of sound mind and familiar with a high school locker room or girls’ gossip can predict, with near scientific certitude, that casually available Plan B is going to mess up a lot more than one in eight kids using it.

The talk about “science” deciding public questions sounds like an appeal to rationality and evidence. But as this and other cases show, it’s just as often the rank superstition of a technocratic elite. We no longer believe in the authority of religious bodies, parents, communities, or the political order itself. So let’s take the immense prestige of modern science, well earned for the many benefits it’s brought, and wrap our preferences in its mantle. Is it bad faith – or simple stupidity – to claim that the neutral facts science, properly understood, deals with can somehow absolve us of having to make decisions about right and wrong?  

Beyond this effrontery, there are many choices about which human knowledge is limited and weak. Understanding that used to be called wisdom.

Take climate change. Whatever your view  – mine is that temperatures have indisputably risen and anthropogenic (i.e., human) factors may have played a role – there is no way that science can tell us how much we’re to blame and how much is the result of other causes.

The reason:  Just Too Many Moving Parts. One of the first things you learn about a proper scientific experiment is that you have to hold all variables the same, except for one, to know scientifically what changes in that variable produce.

We cannot run a controlled experiment with another whole earth in exactly the same conditions as ours over the past century – minus human greenhouse gases. Even if we could, there is irreducible complexity that makes identifying cause and effect in these systems quite fuzzy.

The recently concluded U. N. Conference in Durban tried, again, to scare the industrialized nations into reducing their greenhouse emissions, which would have to be about 75 to 80 percent lower to do what they’re supposed to do according to very uncertain computer models.

This is one among many areas where we mere mortals have to plod along as best we can, taking into account potential problems – which, among the more credible analysts, seem far smaller than the doomsday scenarios – but managing them as we can.

It’s like household economy (economy and ecology are related terms). If someone orders you to pull large amounts of your money from retirement accounts, college funds, mortgage payments, and groceries to buy an expensive car that is less polluting; to pay much more for heat and electricity from cleaner sources; and to go vegetarian, you will agree only if it’s very clearly a matter of life and death. Most people just now aren’t convinced, and recent revelations of scientists hyping the data suggest that they have doubts too.

Speaking of economics:  though I am basically a friend to markets, they sometimes behave a bit like the environment, inexplicably cooling and overheating, because we are always only partly in possession of the data. There are – much more rarely – clear cases like the housing crisis, though even there, fixes are not easy to specify. An economist friend once lamented that the whole tragedy of the “dismal science” is that it can predict certain outcomes “all other things being equal,” which of course they never are.

Modern states are arrogating more and more power to themselves over our lives, and one of the ways they do so most effectively is to claim that they’re only following “the science.” By all means, let’s consult this useful oracle. But let us also act like real men and women and demand guidance, not by the geek squad, but by wisdom.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of
The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Dave, December 12, 2011
"Modern states are arrogating more and more power to themselves over our lives...: and the nexus of Big Government, Big Finance, and Big Business (including, especially, Big Pharma) is tantamount, in my view, to a neo-fascist order: just check out Fascist Italy. The real danger is that we may yet reach a moment in which opposition to this nexus, whether public or semi-public, is considered an incarcerable crime. Robert Hugh Benson contemplated such a possibility in his Lord of the World, more than a century ago; and he posited not the harsh world of the gulags and concentration camps but of jails, euthanasia/suicide clinics for those for whom life had lost its meaning, etc. It was all so very genteel.

It's too easy to say that it cannot happen here, because it is happening. Which of Dr. Royal's two possibilities regarding the temporary stop to Plan B for under-seventeen girls-- a sop to Catholic Democrats or a sober realization of a man with two teenage daughers -- is the guiding factor here, what really stands out, to me at least, are the predictable howls of protest from the Left, reporting in other outlets. We are facing an entire cohort of people who want to build the Brave New World, sooner rather than later, and who aren't afraid, at all, to see innocents die in order to bring that world about. And be certain there are those among the Republican elite who would likewise support the availability of Plan B to young girls. Many prominent Republicans support Planned Parenthood and its agenda: many.

Nor is it clear that at the moment anything can be done about this parlous state of affairs. Fact is, it costs way too much to be elected, and so politicians, of all stripes, are bought in myriad ways (direct contributions, insider information, etc.) and beholden to their corporate or Big Finance sponsors. The current slate of candidates for the GOP nomination isn't really addressing this situation; those trying -- Santorum, Paul, maybe Bachman -- just aren't getting enough traction.

What is required of us, I believe, is a sober realism, that we are about to enter the deluge. Things are likely to get worse before they get better, because in times of crisis people demand security from the Government, and the Government is only too happy to provide it. Government has even been known to manufacture crisis so that people can clamor for its protections.

Perhaps if there were sustained prayer and fasting for conversion of heart, mind, and culture, we might see the juggernaut stopped. Perhaps not, though: the train has been set in motion for some time, it's a big train, and it will stop only slowly. The Fatima prophecies come to mind. Our Lady of Guadalupe: pray for us.
written by Robert Cornwell, December 12, 2011
With all due respect, why would anyone who is pro-life refer to pro-abortion i.e. pro-death as pro-choice.
Pro-choice is a nonsensical term.
Do you think Jesus would use that terminology?

Merry Christmas
written by Robert Royal, December 12, 2011
Mr. Cornwell, if you reread the column, I wrote "pro-abotion', the Democratic staffer being quoted says "pro-choice."
written by Howard, December 12, 2011
Prudence is a virtue: the virtue of understanding the consequences of our actions. Like it or not, that requires substantial scientific understanding upfront, as well as a willingness to react to facts which are contrary to our expectations. It is science that tells us that Nutrasweet and Splenda are *probably* safe (even for children without a prescription), but that "Plan B" is a contraceptive.

Science is not sufficient to answer all questions about what we should or should not do. On the other hand, science really is testable, it really is verifiable, and there really are standards for knowing who knows what he's doing. And there is no reason why someone with scientific knowledge must be less wise than someone with no scientific knowledge; on the contrary, someone who is ignorant of science is more likely to also be ignorant of any other given subject.

Public policy decisions should not be blindly handed over to scientists. Nor should they be blindly handed over to Catholic intellectuals.
written by Dave, December 12, 2011
Howard: there are public policy decisions that should be handed over to scientists, and public policy decisions that should be handed over to intellectuals deeply schooled in philosophy. There are public policy decisions that should be made by scientists and philosophers working together. The real problem is that the nexus against which philosophers of the perennial tradition and other advocates of common sense need to exercise themselves is so deeply entrenched, or, as Dr. Royal concludes, that modern states are arrogating more and more power over our lives to themselves. In the current electoral cycle, no major candidate is speaking credibly about reducing the size and scope of the Government: not Romney, really; not Newt; and certainly not the President.

The argument that scientists are better educated and wiser than the rest is both old and wrong. Hawkins is a brilliant physicist but an absolutely lousy philosopher. That's but one example. Technocratic expertise does not equate to wisdom; and in Aristotle's scheme of things, it is a lower order of knowledge. So we make use of it without giving it the final word. When we do give "science" the final word, we get what we've gotten: great technical expertise, great confusion, and a demoralized population. Scientism -- the view that only that which is measurable, quantifiable, etc. is what is real -- has brought us to the precipice; it will take good philosophers to draw us back.
written by Tony Esolen, December 12, 2011
If I have a leaky pipe, I call a plumber. I don't say, "Hmm, I wonder what we should do about all these teenage criminals on the streets? Maybe I should call the plumber." Scientists do well within the limits of their expertise and of the things that submit to material manipulation. They can also be wise and broadly educated, but my experience suggests instead that the scientism of our times leaves them foolishly arrogant and narrowly read. They are men, like the rest of us -- but the stupid homage we pay to them has caused them to suppose that only they possess knowledge, and that they are quite immune to the blinding effects of pride and vanity.

Nothing in my long experience hanging around academics suggests to me that scientists, as a group, are particularly saintly people, let alone possessed of any broad human experience. As for Catholic intellectuals -- Howard's barb is cute, but it falls to nothing once one considers what a Catholic intellectual actually recommends. It's like saying, "I wouldn't trust public policy to centralizing technocrats, but neither would I trust it to people who believe that mid-level institutions should address issues closest to them." The statement doesn't make sense, because it is precisely the Catholic position that public policy should never be entrusted to any single group, and particularly not to any group as powerful as scientists at the big industrial and academic laboratories.
written by Robert Royal, December 12, 2011
Howard: I used to be a physics student and value real science. Re-read the column more carefully. You're arguing with some other position, not mine I made sure throughout this piece to make clear what I think the scientific method itself specifies that it can do: empirical analysis. Historically, modern science emerged by bracketing questions of value and ends. By its nature, it cannot prescribe policies or goals or an honorable way of life, all of which lie outside science. My quarrel is not with science or even scientists, necessarily. I do quarrel with anyone, scientist or not, who thinks that "science" can replace moral responsibility. And we all need to recognize the charlatans who claim that their ideologies are just the best "science."
written by jason taylor, January 31, 2012

The term "Geek" implies "Youth with eccentric interests usually possessing above average intelligence". Most "geeks" are harmless and even useful and using the term as pejorative for politicians you happen to dislike is in poor taste.

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