Scientists err. Scientists are human


According to Aristotle, the nature of investigation and the proofs we assert depend upon the object.  That is, we do not look for mathematical demonstration when the object of our study is not a mathematical object.  It is even a reduction to dissolve a simple inanimate thing, like a quartz crystal, into a mathematical model, as useful as that reduction may be for certain practical purposes.  That is because of the irreducible particularity of created being – that a crystal is not any crystal, but this one, both like all others and unlike, a unique manifestation of the crystalline essence.  If the particularity or thisness of an inanimate object escapes us, then all the more must the particularity of personal being transcend any generalizing analysis.  We are, as Hans Urs von Balthasar points out in The Truth of the World, far more than objects about whom true statements may be made.  We are ourselves the receivers and the proclaimers of truth; and in no two persons is the same truth made manifest in the same way.  Just as a moment of truth-receiving or truth-telling is unique and unrepeatable, since never again will a truth be shown in the world in quite the same way, so too the persons, the truth-bearers, are unique and irreplaceable.  There is simply no way a general statement can capture the fullness of the moment when John, a student of mine, comes to the awareness that goodness is independent of opinion, even his own opinion; when he gathers into his own subjective being, in his intensely personal way, a truth whose roots extend deep into the mystery of being itself.

When I consider how my mind was spent, when I was young and full of foolish pride, on proving how all things were filled with numbers, the philosophical naivete of it all is now for me a most acute embarrassment.  Mathematics, and the sciences that employ mathematical tools, bring us to a fine field of truth, and we should be grateful for that truth.  Without it we could not live in the comfort that we have wrung from our domination of the natural world.  We would be bound in our travels to the legs of horses, or the winds at sea.  We could not fly.  And yet – to quote that young philosopher Francis Marion Tarwater in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Buzzards can fly.”  A physicist can tell me how a winged object can stay in the air.  But he cannot, insofar as he is a physicist alone or even a biologist alone and not also a man like all other men, tell me about the beauty or the nobility of the buzzard, much less about the beauty or nobility of Francis Marion Tarwater.

There are, in short, things that the natural sciences cannot do, all kinds of things indeed, and among them the most important things in life.  They can tell me how water flows through a pipe – more or less, for even that is subject to the mysterious indeterminacies of feedback loops and turbulence.  It is a fine thing to know how water flows through a pipe.  If I want to drain the sodden backyard, I would surely hire someone with knowledge of hydraulics.  It is a fine thing to know that the coal I hold in my hand, with the fern-fossil bravely imprinted upon it, is thousands of years old, and is of the same basic stuff as diamond.  And yet I cannot exhaust the coal by calculating the calories it will produce when it is burnt, nor can I tell, by consulting a geologist, whether I should buy that diamond and give it to my wife.

We often hear that it is ignorant people who are “opposed to science,” because they oppose this or that thing that scientists wish to do, or because they withhold their assent to this or that proposition that scientists claim to have proved.  As to the latter, it surely is not a mark of foolishness to be circumspect about all grand claims.  I recall, in my own lifetime, a nice variety of scientific claims, such as that the world was going to suffer a new ice-age because of the albedo effect, caused by particulate matter in the atmosphere; that we were going to suffer terrible famines due to overpopulation; that fully twenty percent of the male population were homosexually oriented; that butter was bad for your health; that vitamin C could cure the common cold; that “cold fusion” had been achieved; that DDT would destroy all aviary life on the planet; and so forth.  The history of science is not a story of slowly and neatly accruing truth, but of periods of modest progress punctuated by tumults and revolutions, when everything we thought we knew is turned inside out, subject to dismissal or to radical reinterpretation.

They set up idols to worship.  They make unto themselves (or of themselves!) graven images.  They forget the Sabbath.  They dishonor their parents.  They kill and steal and fornicate.  They cheat, they slander, they detract, they deceive themselves.  They covet – indeed the whole scientific culture seems built upon a network of covetousness.  They fall victim to all of the deadly sins, especially pride, envy, and avarice.  Scientists gave us an innocent Einstein, a compromised Oppenheimer, and a monstrous Mengele.  Scientists have brought us great good, and, yes, some great evil.  Scientists, like every other group of people in the last misbegotten century, wore robes streaked with blood.  Scientists infected unsuspecting women in Central America with syphilis.  Scientists experimented upon black men at Tuskegee.  Scientists ignored the dangers of thalidomide.  Scientists falsified evidence in order to promote the legalization of abortion.  Scientists ignored the connections between artificial estrogen and cancer.  Scientists press on, now, for human cloning, not because it should be done, but because it can be done.  Scientists belittle forms of knowledge that do not fall within their purview; they are, as a group, no better read in the humanities, no more broadly educated in philosophy or theology, than, say, a comparable group of lawyers or politicians.

Why, then, should I trust scientists, simply?  What great moral wisdom do they possess – or what great moral wisdom should we expect them to possess, when they are made much of, when their competition is notoriously vicious, and when they are encouraged to assume that theirs is the only knowledge possible, or worth possessing?  Is that fine preparation for a wise man?  I can readily concede them the virtues of industry and native intelligence, but what of those more profound virtues that make for a truly good human life?  What of the cardinal pagan virtues, temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom?  What of humility, kindness, innocence?  Why on earth should I grant a moral or political carte blanche to a group of people who already possess great prestige and influence and wealth?  Even when scientists are arguing about the facts of a matter – anthropogenic global warming, for instance – they are just as prone to intransigence, to partisanship, to passion and pride, as are farmers arguing for cheap silver coinage or industrialists arguing for a protective tariff.  It was Galileo the deeply flawed man, and not some fictional Galileo the Pure Searcher for Truth, who attempted to prove the geocentric system by half-deliberately misinterpreting the motion of the tides.

For these reasons – the historical fact that scientists are no better or no worse as human beings than generals or judges or plantation owners, and that scientists themselves are often quite wrong – I believe it is absolutely necessary for civilians to oversee scientific research, not to intrude themselves into the small details of every experiment, but to set the broad parameters of what should be done and what should not be done, what does conduce to the common good and what does not.  I trust Patton to prosecute a war, but not to determine when a war ought to be fought.  I trust the judge to interpret the language of a law, not to write the law himself.  I agree with William F. Buckley, who famously quipped that he would prefer to be governed by the first hundred persons in the Cambridge telephone directory than by the faculty at Harvard.  I’ll adapt that preference thus: I would expect to find less moral wisdom among the harried and narrowly focused laboratory workers at any institute of science, than in the plumbers, carpenters, and janitors who construct and tend the room wherein the scientists work.

I have no intent to demean scientists.  I wish merely to see them for what they are, and to see their work for what it is, and to protect the polity from placing too much trust in their unacknowledged priesthood.

Source: Anthony Esolen (2012) The Humility of Science, the Arrogance of Scientists. Crisis Magazine

Repressed Memory & Sexual Abuses – Debunked

Many individuals have come forward publicly to claim that a priest molested them years earlier (and often decades earlier) after asserting that they “repressed” the memory of the abuse having occurred.

Unfortunately, the media has been woefully uncritical when reporting cases in which an individual invokes “repressed memory” when claiming abuse by a priest from decades earlier.

Dr. Richard J. McNally is the Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. As one of the world’s leading experts in the field of memory, he has 250 publications to his credit, including the heralded 2003 book, Remembering Trauma.

In a 2005 letter to the California Supreme Court, which was handling a case in which “repressed memory” was debated, Dr. McNally asserted:

“The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’ — the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”

Many other prominent experts agree. “Repressed memory” is simply bogus.

Dr. Grant Devilly, from the Psychological Health research unit at Griffith University, agrees with Dr. McNally. Devilly says that memories of terrifying experiences work in the opposite manner of repressed memory theory. People rather wish they could forget their traumatic experiences.

“It’s the opposite. They wish they couldn’t think about it,” says Devilly.

Then there is Dr. James McGaugh from the University of California, Irvine. His expertise in the area of memory was once profiled on CBS’ 60 Minutes program. Regarding the issue of “repressed memory,” Dr. McGaugh said in a 2010 book,

“I do not believe there’s such a thing as repressed memory. I haven’t seen a single instance in which a memory was completely repressed and popped up again.

I go on science, not fads. And there’s absolutely no proof that it can happen. Zero. None. Niente. Nada. All my research says that strong emotional experiences leave emotionally strong memories. Being sexually molested would certainly qualify.”

In addition:

  • “Recovered-memory therapy will come to be recognized as the quackery of the 20th century.” – Dr. Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley (Leon Jaroff and Jeanne McDowell, “Repressed-Memory Therapy: Lies of the Mind,” Time, November 29, 1993);
  • “If penis envy made us look dumb, this will make us look totally gullible.” – Dr. Paul McHugh, chairman of the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University (Leon Jaroff and Jeanne McDowell, “Repressed-Memory Therapy: Lies of the Mind,” Time, November 29, 1993);
  • “You can’t be raped for 10 years and not remember it. Yet, according to the repression aficionados, anything’s possible.” – Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California Irvine (Sasha Abramsky, “Memory and Manipulation: The trials of Elizabeth Loftus, defender of the wrongly accused,” LA Weekly, August 19, 2004).

Indeed, this is an issue that must be approached with caution and sensitivity. Not all clergy abuse victims invoke “repressed memory.” The memory of actual awful abuse is all too real and devastating.

“Repressed memory” should not be confused with instances in which an abused individual minimizes the awful harm that was done and comes to the harsh realization later in life of having been abused. Indeed, as Harvard’s Dr. McNally has explained, many victims only come to the understanding of the damage done to them years later after reassessing their hideous experiences. There can be intense suffering when victims reexamine their childhood abuse later in life.

“Seeing the event through the eyes of adult, they realize what has happened to them and now they experience the emotional turmoil of trauma,” says Dr. McNally. The trauma is equivalent to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fortunately, therapy under the direction of a competent psychologist has been shown to be very helpful to victims of PTSD.

“Things have changed, happily. We now have treatments that work,” adds Dr. McNally.

One final note: It is important to know that in the rare moments that “repressed memory” is challenged in the media, victim advocates will vehemently and vocally complain to writers and editors who dare to challenge the bogus theory. Such attackers will falsely claim that there is a legitimate “other side” to this issue. There isn’t. The public should be very aware of this.

To repeat the words of Dr. McNally, “repressed memory therapy” is indeed “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”


Speaking of…St Francis contributions

St. Francis, in the acting out of his life, as the medieval historian Fredreich Heer pointed out decades ago, provided a prophetic challenge to a wide range of persons in his own time.

To the Cathars, Francis preached that the material world is good because it comes as creation as a first revelation of God’s very own self and second, because the world in which we live has been recreated (see the Prologue to John’s Gospel) in the Incarnation. There is a profound nexus between creation and Incarnation. This is the basic sacramental stance of Francis: everything is a sign of God’s presence in the world. It is in this basic sacramental foundation that we must understand Francis’s profound pietas toward the cre- ated world. Not to link that pietas to Francis’s faith in the goodness of creation runs the risk of reducing Francis to a sentimental icon (and this has been a problem since the nineteenth century). That reading of Francis has had some unfortunate results, as an early editor of Butler’s Lives of the Saints has observed somewhat impatiently: “religious and social cranks of all sorts have appealed to him for justification and he has completely won over the hearts of the sentimental.”

To the majores, Francis spoke of the dignity of the poor and the outcast. That he “borrowed” his father’s commercial goods to further his own aims of literally rebuilding a church and helping the lepers was the slightly subversive act of nay-saying in the face of an emergent capitalist mercantile class. That he stripped himself naked before that same father was his definitive rejection of the monied culture. The distaff side of that rejection was his identification with the poor: “While I was in sin,” he wrote in the Testament, “it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me to them and I had mercy on them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”

To the towns and cities of Italy, he preached peace and reconcil- iation to a civil society riven by vendettas and family war, just as he transformed his early aspirations to be a soldier to become an unarmed missionary crossing over Crusader lines (in the company of the aptly named Brother Pacifico) to speak to the caliph. He was a peacemaker at a time when there was little peace either in the towns of Umbria or at the edges of Christian society. His life illustrates the awful truth that makers of peace can only accomplish their desires when possessed of peace themselves.

Finally to the Church, he illustrated that everything flows from faith in the person of Jesus Christ. His allegiance to the Church derived not from loyalty to an institution but from the conviction that it was within the Church that he could best find and embrace Christ. His expressed desire that his friars be Catholic and avoid the heretical sects (explicit in his versions of the Rule) is to be found both in his understanding of the Church as the body of Christ and, further, I think, from his fundamental distaste for schism, chaos, and sectarianism at the civil level—dissensions he fought against throughout his public life.

Source:  Cunningham, Lawrence Francis of Assisi as a Catholic Saint. Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2006, pp. 56-71

Catholic Constitutionalism & Homosexuality

The goal of virtue inscribed in human and constitutional rights also curtails legal protection for sexuality that is not reproductive. If rights are essentially natural law, and natural law is another word for the will of God, then rights must sponsor virtue. When the matter at hand is sex, the question is: what kind of sex is virtuous? After centuries of controversy, the Catholic church concluded that only reproductive sex within marriage can be virtuous. Since God mandated humans to reproduce (“go forth and be fruitful”), reproductive sex is in fact a core element of God ’ s plan for humankind, and therefore a common human good. But other forms and expressions of sexuality, such as sex without vaginal intercourse, same-sex relations, and sex outside of marriage are not. Rights cannot protect these choices because rights cannot contradict natural law; they are not legitimate exercises of freedom. Incidentally neither is contraception (God wants us to reproduce) nor assisted reproduction (but only naturally).

The Catholic understanding of sex as essentially procreative is intimately related to a particular understanding of sexual difference of profound theological importance. Men and women are essentially different beings, whose differences, determined by nature, hinge on women ’ s singularity: women ’ s essence is defined as loving and giving, while male essence is not explicitly defi ned qua male. The purpose of women ’ s life, their dignity, lies in the realization of this essence by existing “for the other.” This must not be confused with male domination—a direct result of original sin and not of God ’ s will. Before the Fall, mutuality or reciprocity existed between male and female, as both man and woman existed “for the other.” But God ’ s punishment for sin was different for each sex, and in women ’ s case it included male domination. As a consequence, redemption for women is deeply connected to the fulfi llment of the call to motherhood and family life in service and sacrifice. Traditional gender roles are thus linked to salvation. This explains why the Vatican systematically argues that feminist theories and politics misunderstand natural gender roles. For the church sexual difference entails gendered roles which are not cultural, and instead part of the salvational narrative.

This understanding of sexual difference explains the attachment to and defense of lifelong heterosexual marriage, the rejection of homosexuality, the negative views on non-procreative sexuality, and the defense of traditional gender roles. These are all issues that the Catholic church considers non-negotiable, issues which the faithful must oppose through legal and political activism.

Source: Julieta Lemaitre “By reason alone: Catholicism, constitutions, and sex in the Americas” Int J Constitutional Law (2012) 10(2): 493-51

Origin of the Idea of a Supreme Being in Primitive Culture

If we apply that criterion to the abundant mass of data which we can now produce regarding the primitive Supreme Being, the first thing to notice is that the total sum of the facts is of a nature to satisfy the total sum of human needs. Man needs to find a rational cause; this is satisfied by the concept of a Supreme Being who created the world and those that dwell therein. He had social needs; these find their support in belief in a Supreme Being who is also the Father of mankind, who founded the family and to whom, therefore, man and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters and kinsfolk owe allegiance. Man has moral needs; and these too find their stay and support in a Supreme Being who is lawgiver, overseer and judge of the good and the bad, and is himself free from all moral taint. Man’s emotional wants, trust, love, thankfulness, are satisfied by such a being, a Father from whom comes all good and nothing but good.

Man needs a protector to whom he can resign himself; this need is supplied in this Being, who is supreme and great above all others. Thus in all these attributes this exalted figure furnished primitive man with the ability and the power to live and to love, to trust and to work, the prospect of becoming the master of the world and not its slave, and the aspiration to attain to yet higher, supra-mundane goals beyond. Only through
this conception of deity can we explain the power of our earliest ancestors to struggle onwards; and the most precious of human energies—labour, responsibility, aspirations upward, feeling for the unity of all mankind—still trace their origin to those primeval days. We thus find, among a whole series of primitive races, a notable religion, many- branched and thoroughly effective.

The second unity into which all the individual traits of the primitive Supreme Being combine and, as it were, stand shoulder to shoulder, is that of time; for he fills all time. From his eternal heaven he invades Nothingness, and begins the time-series with his creative activity. Throughout all the periods of creation and all successive periods he is lord of man’s history, although he does not always actively interpose. He stands,
moreover, at the beginning of each human life, accompanies it through all its length of days, awaits its appearance before his tribunal and determines the nature of its eternity. For such a unity as this primitive man has no model and no corroboration in what he sees and experiences in his own time.

The third unity, which also combines all the separate facts concerning the primitive Supreme Being, is that of space; for he dominates all space. There is but one Supreme Being, and he fills this universe; there is but one sovereign and one power extending over these distances and joining them one to another. For the God of these primitive men is not the god merely of one tribe and its environment; if only because he is the creator of the whole world and of all men, he has no neighbour whose realm could limit his. The thoughts and feelings of these men have no room for more than one Supreme Being. The personal experience of primitive man did not show him unity of time; still less did he find unity of space therein, and least of all in his social conditions. Primitive monotheism is founded upon the sovereignty over these two unities; this high god is so great that he alone suffices for everything and for all—for all men and all times, all ideals, longings and needs. And therefore he has no peer, for his greatness knows no bounds and thus leaves no room for any neighbour.

Source: Wilhelm Koppers,  (1886-1961), Roman Catholic priest and cultural anthropologist

Pope, Science and Miracles

Since the 16th century, the Pope’s cardinals have been using a so-called miracle commission. This is a special task force consisting of medical scientists who investigate whether alleged saints can really cause miracles. ”There has been talk of the Vatican having a kind of ’CIA’, which investigates alleged miracles. This may be true to a certain extent,” says Niels Christian Hvidt, an associate professor of theology at the University of Southern Denmark, who is also the director of the Danish Center for Research in Faith and Health. ”The miracle commission canonises saints in the Catholic Church. It’s sent out to investigate whether or not a person qualifies as a saint. Since saints are a central element of Catholicism, they need to be examined using the latest scientific methods.”

Can science spot a miracle? To determine whether it’s really a miracle, the commission collects evidence and examines the healed person. These assessments are made in accordance with scientific methodology. ”The miracle commission consists of doctors who use the latest equipment to find an explanation to why a person has been healed,” he says. ”If, for instance, a brain tumour suddenly disappears after prayer, the doctors check the patient’s medical record and brain scans from before and after the tumour disappeared.” External specialists called in A total of 80-90 physicians are affiliated with the Vatican’s miracle commission.

They are all competent scientists and not all of them are necessarily Catholics. When a potential miracle is reported to the Vatican, the report includes testimonies from astounded doctors who cannot find a natural explanation for the phenomenon in question. The cardinals then pass these testimonies on to the miracle commission, which then sends a delegation to the location where the unexplainable event took place. If the delegates fail to find a satisfactory scientific explanation for the strange phenomenon, they can call in external experts. “They do everything they can to find an explanation. At some point they may give up, and then the case is handed over to the Vatican’s theologians,” says the researcher. 
“The theologians then examine the doctors’ testimonies for specific religious issues – e.g. trust and prayer. If such issues are present in the testimonies, they, together with the inexplicable nature of the incident, constitute the miracle.” Miracles are proof that saints exist The Catholic Church has a 500-year-old tradition of asking God to confirm whether a deceased person is actually a saint. ”It’s assumed that saints are with God. That’s why people on Earth can receive help from a saint: ‘Dear Mother Teresa, would you please pray that my daughter gets well again,” he says. ”If the prayer is heard, it’s a sign that Mother Teresa is actually with God. The Catholic Church regards this as ‘empirical’ evidence that she is qualified and can be canonised by the Pope.” Dark forces behind the unexplainable? When a case is handed over to the theologians, it doesn’t automatically lead to a canonisation. It is common procedure that the theologians first check whether dark forces may have caused the unexplainable phenomenon. “’A miracle’ is a theological concept which presupposes divine intervention.

But a traditional Catholic theologian may also consider magic or evil forces as possible causes of extraordinary events. “That something unexplainable takes place doesn’t automatically make it a miracle.” So the theologians take a critical approach to the testimonies they’re presented with. But their criteria are entirely different to those of the physicians in the miracle commission, i.e. religious criteria. “The theologians can use the premise that it’s God who has caused the effect that science fails to explain. They are open to the idea that God can have an influence on this world – and that in some cases he actually does. This is why the theologians can provide an explanation that’s different to that of the doctors,” says Hvidt. Untraditional scientific methods The Vatican tries to separate science and religion in the canonisation process.

But Hvidt believes the work of the miracle commission is open to criticism as its use of scientific methods is rather untraditional: “Their work may be considered offensive because it’s based on empirical scientific methods, but the methods are used in the opposite way to what we’re used to seeing.” Scientists normally look for evidence that nature is arranged in a certain way that’s in accordance with existing scientific laws. They look for certain knowledge, for instance that dinosaurs grew wings and evolved into birds [10]. The miracle commission has a different task. Its job is to find evidence to the contrary – that there are phenomena for which there is no rational or scientific explanation. ”Scientific methods are normally used to explain things,” says the researcher. “But the miracle commission uses these methods to give colour to the idea that some things cannot be explained. Science is being turned on its head, so to speak.” 
Scientists may feel pressure from the Vatican There is a risk that the miracle commission – consciously or subconsciously – fails to notice natural explanations for the unexplainable healings. This could be simply because the scientists feel pressured by their employer, the Vatican, because it has a long tradition of canonising a saint every once in a while. The Catholic Church can only canonise a saint if the commission fails to find explanations for the mysteries it investigates. And canonisations play a major role in Catholicism. Despite his criticism, Hvidt believes the commission’s work does have some scientific merit, given the conditions: ”They are very meticulous in their work. I have not doubts about that. It’s entirely wrong to say that they’re using medieval methods to study these things today,” he says. Since the 1500s the miracle commission and the Vatican’s theologians have approved some 1,200 instances of miracles. How many have been rejected remains uncertain.

Source: ScienceNordic

Benedict XVI & The Media…by the numbers

Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader of some 1 billion Catholics worldwide, announced on February 11 that he will retire from his post by the end of the month, citing weakness and age. It will make him the first pope to resign in 600 years.

Perhaps the most visible religious figure in the world, Pope Benedict has attracted a significant share of news coverage over the years. Since Pew Research Center began tracking the U.S. news media in 2007, the pope has been by far the central figure in mainstream religion coverage.

A new analysis of 2,700 religion stories in newspapers, websites, cable and broadcast news programs and audio outlets over a five-year period finds that:

When covering religion, the U.S. media gave Pope Benedict far more attention than any other figure. The pope was the main newsmaker in 32% of all religion stories studied from July 2007 through May, 2012. That is nearly three times as much as the No. 2 religion newsmaker, Barack Obama (12%).

Looking across all topics and the many thousands of people in the news over the last five years, Benedict still ranks high. The pope was the 27th most-covered individual, the focus of more attention than figures such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, John Boehner or Hamid Karzai.

In the context of religion coverage, not all media sectors have given equal treatment to the pope. On network TV, fully 38% of the religion coverage studied over the five years has focused on Benedict. On cable TV, however, only 14% has done so. Among other sectors, newspaper front pages (20%), audio news programs (23%) and major news websites (27%) fell somewhere in the middle.
Despite all the pope’s activities over the years, the U.S. media primarily focused on two main stories, with little attention to religious issues the Pope dealt with during his tenure.

Source: Pew Research Center