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Author: Briggs

December 13, 2008 | 32 Comments

How not to argue for stem cell research

I received this press release from the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a group that grew out of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (or CSICOP). I receive these kinds of things daily from groups hoping I will publicize their causes. In this case, I decided to comply.

E-mail: nbupp@centerforinquiry.net

Center for Inquiry Calls Vatican’s Position on Biomedical Technology Deplorable and Scientifically Insupportable

Amherst, New York (December 12, 2008)—In a move designed to firm up faith-based opposition to embryonic stem cell research and other cutting-edge biomedical technologies, the Vatican has released a 32-page document titled “Dignitas Personae” – meaning “the dignity of a person.” The document condemns a host of procedures considered “immoral” by the Catholic Church, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), the freezing of unfertilized eggs, embryonic stem cell research, and the testing of embryos to help identify those with defects. The Center for Inquiry, a think tank headquartered in Amherst, New York that supports research on bioethical questions, deplores the Vatican’s pronouncement. The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine, according to the Center for Inquiry, and may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.

“I regret the renewed effort by the Vatican to censor—indeed prohibit—research in reproductive science,” said Paul Kurtz, chairman and founder of the Center for Inquiry. “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again? The Vatican claims that their objections are “moral,” but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” Kurtz says there is a need to defend freedom of scientific research and the positive good that can ensue for countless numbers of infertile couples. “The effort to curtail stem cell research is especially disturbing in the view of the possible beneficent results for improving human health,” he said.

The Vatican has focused on commonplace scientific technologies used in the United States and elsewhere, which the Church believes demean human “dignity,” and bring humans perilously close to “playing God.” The Church continues to hold steadfast to its key theological proclamation that “life begins at conception,” thereby rendering as “illicit” the use of embryos or fertilized eggs in research or otherwise, including IVF for married Catholic couples wishing to conceive.

Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (and author of the book Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas) said that “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science. Until roughly fourteen days after conception, one cannot even meaningfully refer to the embryo as an individual, let alone the equivalent of an adult human, since both twinning and fusion are possible until that point.” Lindsay added that the Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived “naturally” are spontaneously aborted. “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.”

“The bottom line,” says Lindsay, “is that the Vatican is telling those who need medical assistance to seek help from theology, not therapy.”

The Center for Inquiry/Transnational is a nonprofit, educational, advocacy, and scientific-research think tank based in Amherst, New York. Their research and educational projects focus on three broad areas: religion, ethics, and society; paranormal and fringe-science claims; and medicine and health. The Center’s Web site is www.centerforinquiry.net .

The Vatican paper may be found here.

This, as we all know, is an extraordinarily touchy subject, and I should know better than to try and tackle it. I want to be very careful to make one central point: that this press release is a poor, even false in part, and error-filled argument against the Catholic Church’s position on human dignity. I am not arguing that CFI’s underlying position is wrong, however; nor am I arguing it is right. That is, I will not argue, nor claim support, for any side in the questions to which the press release and Vatican document address.

I hope not to get into those discussions, either. That is, I hope we can stick to how to and how not to argue a point, and that we do not attempt (at this time) to argue for or against the points in question. Let’s keep this friendly.

Paul Kurtz, who founded or co-founded both CSICOP and CFI, is a philosopher and so should know better than to have issued this press release. Let’s go point by point to see why.

“The [Vatican] document condemns a host of procedures considered ‘immoral’ by the Catholic Church…” Note the scare quotes around the word immoral, the use of which, says the late philosopher David Stove, serve to negate the word so that it doesn’t mean immoral, but believed by so and so to be immoral. Like it or not, the debate on the central questions are moral ones; they cannot be any but. So to say ‘immoral’ in the way the press release did serves to limit the usefulness of a word that is necessary for CFI to use. This is because, as we shall see, the sole argument that CFI has against the Vatican position is that “it is too moral!”

There is nothing wrong with this argument. The Vatican is claiming immorality, and there is nothing wrong with the counter that it is too moral to allow “vitro fertilization (IVF), the freezing of unfertilized eggs, embryonic stem cell research, and the testing of embryos to help identify those with defects.”

Thus, when CFI whines that, “The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine”, this is logically equivalent to saying “The Vatican’s position is a moral one based on its central beliefs and tenets.” And is thus a poor attempt of CFI trying to disallow the Vatican’s use of morality in argumentation.

Kurtz then says the Vatican’s position, “may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.” Very true, but this is nothing more than a restatement of the Vatican’s original position: that these activities are immoral, and since they immoral, they should be proscribed.

Kurtz again: “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again?” Given that Kurtz has fairly picked a reasonable comparison, which he has not1, his question implies what is false: that there is some factual truth which the Vatican is failing to acknowledge. A reading of the Vatican document shows they know well the medical facts. They are not arguing against the facts, just saying that employing certain behavior related to these facts is immoral.

More Kurtz: “The Vatican claims that their objections are ‘moral,’ but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” He again uses scare quotes around moral, once more trying to remove a legitimate form of argument. He even calls the Vatican’s call to morality a “theological doctrine”, which is a true statement, but silly. Of course it is a theological argument! What else would it be?

Note Kurtz’s call to consensus, where he says “a position which most scientists reject”. Mr Kurtz, this is logically and factually equivalent to “a position which some scientists support”! Readers of this blog will recognize that Kurtz’s choice of words is far from a strong argument in his favor.

His next statement is his best, he finally says something about why he feels use of these medical procedures is moral, arguing “the positive good…for countless numbers of infertile couples…[and]…the possible beneficent results for improving human health.” To say that these procedures will be “good” is a moral statement, and to claim “possible beneficent results” is a factual one, open to observation, theory, and all the other tools available to research questions of these kind. If Kurtz would have stuck to observations like these, his would have made sense.

Next to weigh in is CFI’s Ronald Lindsay, who is obviously letting his emotions get the best of him when he says, “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science.” The Vatican, of course, has no choice but to opt for religious doctrine in its arguments. This is its reason for existence!

Lindsay’s second mistake is falsely contrasting religious doctrine and “science”, as if there was a tangible thing, or group, called “science” to which we can defer, much as some defer to the Church on moral matters. There is no such thing as “science” in this sense.2 There are facts, theories, observations, and so on which do exist and which can be considered, consulted, interpreted, and used in good or bad order. Thus, Lindsay makes the same error as Kurtz did when he claims the Vatican is claiming certain true facts are false. The Vatican is doing no such thing. Who doubts the veracity or efficacy of in vitro fertilization, for example? No priest of bishop is making so absurd a claim.

After citing a little known and interesting medial fact, a form of argument to which he should have stuck, Lindsay moves to non sequiturs: “The Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived ‘naturally’ are spontaneously aborted.” I don’t know why he needs scare quotes around naturally, but it does not follow that the embryos lost, or the way in which they were lost, from IVF is morally equivalent to those that are lost, and the way they are lost, spontaneously. But he didn’t have to make this error because he was awfully close to a factual argument which he should have offered on the mechanisms and causes of spontaneous abortions and in what way, if any, these are or are not equivalent to those happening in patients receiving IVF.

Lindsay then says something utterly absurd: “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.” This is nothing but childish petulance and should not found its way into a press release purporting to be the public face of a major organization. I also can’t help but picture a look of smug self-satisfaction on Lindsay’s face as he thought up this zinger. I might be doing a disservice to this great man by saying that, but I’d bet it will be a common emotion felt by many who read this press release.

Worked into a pique, Lindsay closes with another non sequitur: “the Vatican is telling those who need medical assistance to seek help from theology, not therapy.” I don’t even know what to say about this other than to remark that this kind of thing is what commonly passes for arguments in politics these days. It boils down to “I want my way because it’s my way!” That is, it is no better than that.

What is most striking is the Kurtz and Lindsay had a vast array of both factal and moral statements that they could have employed in their favor but did not. Kurtz and Lindsay are implicitly arguing that the Catholic Church’s position is immoral, and they should have said so. Instead, they chose to say nothing better than “We reject the Vatican’s arguments because they are religious.” Kurtz must know that this is a fallacious conclusion. It is no way follows that because a statement arises from religious or theological grounds it must be false or not moral.

All in all, a pretty bad press release.

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1If all you know about Galileo and the Catholic Church is the usual folklore, what you know is probably mistaken. “The story of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633 for teaching the Copernican system is often presented as a classic example of religion and science coming into conflict. But this story is also part myth and part fact. Historians now largely agree that Galileo was not tried for teaching heliocentrism but for disobeying a Church order.” Read the whole article, by Victor Stenger, a CSICOP fellow and CFI member, here. Also mandatory reading is a work Stenger cites: Mano Singham. “The Copernican Myths,” Physics Today (December 2007): 48-52. You know I love you, dear readers, but please do not comment on this particular topic unless you have read both of these articles. It will save us a great deal of time and unnecessary animosity.

2If there was, I suppose I would be one of its renegade priests.

December 12, 2008 | 82 Comments

Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies

Since we had so much fun with the Military List. Plus, it’s Friday.

  1. Star Wars The original 1977 theatrical, error-filled release only. Han did shoot first. The storm troopers did want the blast doors to be closed only to then want them re-opened. Darth did do the wagging finger gesture for no apparent reason after his speech in the war room to Tarkin was over. When I saw the movie when it came out I wanted a light saber so bad it hurt. I was 13. I could still find a use for one.
  2. The Thing from Another World Original; the remake is excellent, too, but probably better classified as Horror; see below. If you have never seen this, you are in for a treat. I have seen this movie dozens of times, and each viewing I hear a new line I somehow missed before. This is one of those Rosalind Russell fast talking comedy dramas. It’s hard to keep up. Dr Carrington’s motivations are natural, believable, and consistent throughout. The only, very minor, jarring point is when Scotty faints at the end, when he had been on Okinawa during the end of World War II. Anybody who made it through that would not pass out when seeing a vegetable cook. This movie does not follow the now usual conventions and will surprise you. You also have to keep in mind that this came out at the height of the Great Saucer Scare.
  3. The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original! The scenes in the movie are as good or better than any today. The angle of the camera when Klaatu comes out of the ship and is shot is stunning. When suddenly we see—a non-computer generated—Gort immobile and menacing. Wow. That immobility was of a necessity, ok, because the moving robot looked a little clunky, but they made the best of what they had and it turned out to be better than they could have hoped. Sure, there’s the obligatory wild-hair scientist and precocious kid, but they are not so annoying. Thank God, no love story. The religious allegory you sometimes here of is there but it is sly and minimal. “Klaatu barada necktie.” Oops, wrong movie.
  4. Terminator All time travel plots are doomed to failure at some level, but this one is as perfect as can be. Nothing can beat Arnie is his prime. “I’ll be back.” Original in every way. Movies, especially sci-fi, should get right to the point and then move along. This does. Maybe it’s because I find Linda Hamilton so attractive, but she did a remarkable job. The number of special effects are kept to a bare minimum, and the movie benefits enormously from it. The ending at the gas station is chilling.
  5. Alien Mixed feelings here. First the bad. This was the movie that started the now cliche trend of killing a group off one by one, only to see the young, plucky girl triumphant in the end. Plus, it has what too many movies have: letters plotting across a computer monitor at a snail’s pace accompanied by bup-bup-bup sounds. Good grief! So it’s hard to watch now. But, boy, when it came out. It was new! Graphically stunning. Talk about surprise indigestion! Like Star Wars, this movie had the sense, where the movies from before that time did not, to make the equipment/space ships look used and lived in, like they were really there. You see it everywhere now, but it was innovative at the time.
  6. Planet of the Apes Original, natch. The best part of this movie is the interaction between Taylor (Heston) and Dr Zaius. To hear Zaius spin in the name of the faith is fascinating. “There is no conflict between science and religion. True science.” Of course, we’re now supposed to say how foolish this is. But given the ending (and the original intent of the book), it is not so clear that Zaius wasn’t doing exactly the right thing. “Take your dirty paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”
  7. Blade Runner Theatrical version, please. Yes, with the P.I. voice over, dammit. Makes it more like a film noir, and gets us quicker through the boring parts. Yes, there are dull bits. Not when Batty is on the screen, though. There is an award-winning (yes, award-winning) professor at a place I know who uses this movie to demonstrate what it will be like when global warming takes over. You’re also supposed to root for the sophisticated interpretation of the ending, where Deckard realizes he’s a replicant, too. Oh my! If so, then the whole movie makes no sense, because every higher up would have known, thus invalidating the plot. This is one of the rarer instances where I will defer to the movie and not the original story. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was all right, but not wonderful. You’re not supposed to say that about Dick nowadays.
  8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind Again—computers, damn them! I am repeating myself—but the original, theatrical version only. The one that shows Roy go to his job site at the beginning of the movie, and so on. This had a certain hopefulness, an eagerness. It was more than a little frightening, too. Spare use of technical effects made the aliens seem realer than if we had been bombarded with them. Remember that, Mr Director! Too many effects ruin a movie. We care about what happens to the people. In this case, I was as jealous as can be of Neary (Dreyfuss). When I see the pile of bills arrive daily, and think about facing another ride on that smelly F train, I still am.
  9. Highlander Utterly absurd, but just as emotionally compelling. Maybe it’s because it’s layered on so thick that you can’t help but be effected just a little. The ending—the very, very end as they lay in the grass—stinks. The chief cop is a cliche, Christopher Lambert—Connor of the clan MacLeod—is a bad actor, Sean Connery’s part is goofy. But you can’t take your eyes off of it. Clancy Brown as the very wisely left unexplained “Kurgan” was excellent as he always is. Yes, even the music by Queen was good (it was in Flash Gordon, too). Maybe this is one of the movies you watch at home in a group of people who have consumed as much beer as you have. Love the scene where MacLeod gets in a drunken duel. “There can be only one.”
  10. Soylent Green The original greenhouse gas, population bomb movie. Characteristic of all those early 70s, late 60s dystopian dramas, many starring Heston, this one is the best. It’s a mystery. The head of the Soylent corporation is found dead. Suicide? Detective Thorn (Heston) is on the case! He steals some jelly and some “furniture.” His roommate “goes home” to Beethoven. Actually, I’m not so sure how great this movie is, but it’s one everybody should see so that they get it when somebody shouts the last line at them. Solyent Orange is on special today. Yummy.
  11. When Worlds Collide The pacing of this movie is perfect. A distant object—a new solar system of one planet and sun—is moving towards Earth. It will hit us. The one hope is to build ships to move to the new planet. An isolated group, financed by a wealthy curmudgeon, begins to build; the rest of the population blows it off, assured by politicians that they can handle it. A PA system in the background occasionally announces “Work faster! Only seventeen days left!” When the world learns the truth, the compound of the group is stormed. The people who built the ships draw straws to see who can go. Those with the short ones realize their predicament. Does humanity make it?
  12. Escape from New York Kurt Russel as pirate eye-patch wearing Snake Plissken? Ernest Borgnine as a crazed cabby (who listens to good music)? Manhattan Island as a prison? What’s not to love! Strangely believable. The ending is fantastic. John Carpenter used to do a good job with suspense.

Yes, I can count. Close enough to 10.

Honourable mentions (in no particular order): Tron A must see; War Games “Would you like to play a game?”; War of the Worlds Original only, the remake featured a midget ego-maniac Scientologist and had an asinine plot; Galaxy Quest “I see you managed to get your shirt off!”; Trekkies I & II “This year we even had a girl come.”; The Last Starfighter Come, on. Admit it. You love it.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers This time—the only time—both the 1956 (crazy man) and 1978 (Spock wears a turtle neck) versions. Not the most recent one; It Came From Outer Space Surprisingly good paranoia flick.

I, Robot I wish they would have done more from the book and they could have had a franchise; Logan’s Run Ustinov was great. “Renew!”; Vibes a guilty pleasure; Mystery Men “The PMS avenger!”; The Philadelphia Experiment Much better than you would think.

Road Warrior (Mad Max II) I learned from this movie that Australians are just as crazy as Japanese people—I mean this as a compliment; Starship Troopers Supposedly, they didn’t harm any real bugs in the making of this movie; They Live! Silly plot, but best fight scene ever; Total Recall “We can remember it for you wholesale”; X-Men (I & II) Solid entertainment, but not much else.

Altered States Don’t remember this one? Plenty of weird religious allegory. Done when water/isolation tanks were big. Yes, they were; Back to the Future Goofy fun; Flash Gordon Awful in every way, but so awful that it’s worth watching; Forbidden Planet & Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Somehow these two seem a natural pair; Fifth Element But only because of Bruce Willis; Stargate Not too bad; Iron Man First part and last scene only; Alien Nation I even liked the TV show; Serenity Same thing, but you had to see the show else the movie made little sense. I saw this at a premiere where the audience was composed entirely of fans. A gasp ran through the crowd when one beloved character handed in his dinner pail.

I am sure I have left out honourable mentions that I have forgotten about. All animated movies have been purposely omitted.

More horror than sci fi?

Predator Jesse the Body: “I ain’t got time to bleed…”; The Thing from John Carpenter. “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…” ; Scanners Canadians on a rampage!; Godzilla Again, the original, and most of the Japanese continuations. Each is more ridiculous than the last. But, God help me, I do love them;

The original!

The obvious theme to this list is that most remakes suck. My official probabilistic estimate is that any remake has a 99.9% chance of sucking. I have seen the previews for The Day the Earth Stood Still and I fear the worst. Several other movies in the list above are slated for remakes. Even When Worlds Collide! This time, no doubt, some hero will save the day.

The unbearable wonderfulness of computer graphics

A word of caution: you cannot judge’s yesterday’s movies by today’s special effects standards! The older ones, especially since they didn’t have racks and racks of computers…were obviously better. The disadvantages of being burdened by computers are only too obvious. The temptation to add in an extra explosion or physics-defying stunt is just too much for most directors to resist. One more CGI space bug is just the thing! Poor, deluded souls. They deserve our sympathy. It’s really not their fault. The computer just makes things too easy.

What! You didn’t include X Y or Z?

No, no Star Trek movies. The best of them seem to be mere extensions of the TV show. No black mark against them, but somehow they don’t seem to be “real movies.” And I am a fan.

No, no Star Wars after the first. The second one was OK, the third one stunk, and the last three shows what happens when you pay nerds to play with computers but give them no moral guidance (“Love is like sand. It gets in your shorts and grates.”).

No 2001 either, though to not to include it is sign of unsophistication. I love the man-apes beating the crap out of one another, but the movie didn’t make any sense; the book did. It did do the physics right and deserves praise for that.

Sorry, but The Matrix was idiotic. The plot was ridiculous beyond even a small child’s ability to suspend disbelief. Pretty, sure. Yes, those computer graphics were innovative. But in the end, that’s all they are. Computer graphics. I remember when CGI first really took hold. Some group put out a VHS of various shiny-skinned human-like creatures interacting with ray-traced Greek-columned houses and such like. The kind of nerds who listened to Vangelis bought them. They have rightly disappeared without a trace.

Nope. Donnie Darko is theatrical version of pseudo-angst-filled Starbucks coffehouse imitation of deep, meaningful chatter.

You’re also supposed to list the original Solaris. I do not. Stick to the book. Also read Lem’s The Futurological Congress.

No Metropolis either. It’s boring. Being first does not mean being good (hear that, Beatles fans?).

Uh, uh. No Jurassic Park. Have you noticed that all CGI monsters do exactly the same thing? When the evil, man-eating creature comes upon somebody, does it snatch him up and swallow tout de suite as is within its ability? No! Instead, it stops cold, rears back, put it’s tentacles, arms, and other appendages to the back, strains its neck forward to its limit, then roars while shaking its head. Thus allowing the heroine plenty of time to escape or shoot. Every. Single. Monster now does this. It’s stupid. If you’ve ever seen a real predator go after real prey you know what there are no theatrics involved. It’s chomp city, baby, as fast as can be.

December 10, 2008 | 16 Comments

Hire me!

Just a friendly reminder that this site is in part mercenary and that I am for hire. See my Hire me! page for full details of all the wonderful things I can do.

For Christmas, I am running a special on numerological predictions, which are guaranteed to be 100% forecasts! I accept most forms of currency.

December 9, 2008 | 10 Comments

We made “noteworthy”

Which is one step below “honourable mention”, which itself is just under the actual winner. Or, in other words, we lost.

Several months ago Roger Kimball instituted a contest:

Name the silliest argument to be offered by a serious academic in the last 25 years and to be taken up and be gravely masticated by the larger world of intellectual debate.

Our entry was moral equivalence, particularly as manifested in the doctrine of diversity:

Diversity, as in “we value diversity in our student body.” One major ivy-league university, for example, states that it “is committed to extending its legacy recruiting a heterogeneous faculty, student body and staff; fostering a climate that doesn’t just tolerate differences but treasures them [etc.]” You cannot now find a university that isn’t constantly and loudly devoted to diversity.

However, we can be sure that by this they do not—and should not—mean intellectual diversity. This should be obvious. For if we merely wanted to increase intellectual diversity, we would create classes and recruit subject matter experts in “How to Murder”, “Advanced Pedophilia”, “Creative Robbery”, “Marxist Theory”, or similar idiocies.

Back when I joined, I predicted the outcome would be the same as the famous contest by (the late, great) philosopher David Stove to “Find the World’s Worst Argument.” Stove won the contest himself by entering first.

Kimball also entered before any other, and so had the same enormous advantage Stove did. We were in the contest, but rose no higher than “noteworthy” which, we can console ourselves, is still above the rabble.

Kimball’s winning entry:

I would like to thank all who participated for helping to populate this little menagerie of intellectual hubris and folly. Several of the contributions must come high on anyone’s list of stupid ideas that have had a pernicious influence. Nevertheless, I am going to award the palm to my own original contender: Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. Claiming to distinguish between “what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history,” Fukuyama wrote that

What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Fukuyama wrote this in 1989. He had noticed that the Soviet Union was imploding. But Fukuyama was drunk on the philosophy of Hegel. Hence he mistook the collapse of one tyranny for triumph of freedom. In fact, what we have been witnessing for the last quarter century is the accelerating retribalization of the world. What Fukuyama described as “mankind’s ideological evolution” has turned out (so far, anyway) to have given rather short-shrift to “the universalization of Western liberal democracy” in favor of other, more vivid alternatives, e.g., Islamic fundamentalism. The Bombay atrocity. The newly rampant Somali pirates. Even the anti-democratic march of the European Union. Western liberal democracy is a pleasant option. But only a fool would believe that its success was inevitable.