Wisdom, not the Geek Squad

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.

A note from Robert Royal: We’re grateful at
The Catholic Thing for the support of readers this past week. In particular, a number of donations came in over the weekend. But we are far behind where we need to be by the end of the year if TCT is going to be able to keep on bringing you that faithful Catholic commentary you come to this site to read every morning. These are hard economic times and we know many of our readers are hard pressed. That makes it all the more urgent that those of you fortunate enough to be in a position to help with this work do so, and as soon as possible. We really need a slew of $50, $75, and $100 contributions – or more – to meet the readership targets we’ve agreed to with some of our large donors. And I’d really like to end this fundraising drive well before Christmas so that we can all get back to contemplation of the Great Story of our faith. So please, become a collaborator in this work. Give to The Catholic Thing today.     

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.