This week Sen. Marco Rubio rebuked pro-choice defenders of science, saying “The science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life beings at conception.”

Except that isn’t the scientific consensus at all…. (More)

Endless Debate, Part II: Political Dissent vs. Scientific Debate (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers conservative demands for endless debate, when it suits them. Yesterday we looked at their stances on evolution, climate change, and other science they don’t like. Today we explore Sen. Rubio’s claims on the science of abortion, and the difference between political dissent and scientific debate.

Is James Bedford dead?

University of California psychology professor James Bedford died of cancer on January 12, 1967. Maybe. Dr. Bedford was a pioneer in the cryogenics movement, and his body was frozen after he was declared legally dead. While his body has been inert for 47 years, the freezing stopped cellular decay. It’s possible that a future technology could revive him.

So is James Bedford dead or alive? As a matter of law, he’s dead. And there is no current technology that could revive him. But what if, rather than a 74-year-old cancer victim, he were a 5-day-old human blastocyst and had been frozen for future in-vitro fertilization?

That technology already exists, and it works, albeit imperfectly. Fewer than half of implanted blastocysts result in pregnancies, and only a third of attempts with thawed blastocysts result in live births. The rest are miscarried or stillborn.

“A scientific consensus they conveniently choose to ignore”

That’s worth remembering when we consider Sen. Marco Rubio’s claim about the scientific case against abortion:

Here’s what I always get a kick out of, and it shows you the hypocrisy. All these people always wag their finger at me about science and settled science. Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to. The science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life beings at conception. So I hope the next time someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of scientists that say that human life begins at conception?’ I’d like to see someone ask that question.”

That’s not even a debatable thing. It’s a proven fact. That’s a scientific consensus they conveniently choose to ignore.

But as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump reported, Sen. Rubio’s ‘science’ is wrong:

Government agencies and American medical organizations agree that the scientific definition of pregnancy and the legal definition of pregnancy are the same: pregnancy begins upon the implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of a woman’s uterus. This typically takes place, if at all, between 5 and 9 days after fertilization of the egg – which itself can take place over the course of several days following sexual intercourse.

As a matter of science, pregnancy begins at implantation and not at fertilization. As for when life begins, Bump reports, that’s a different question and there’s no scientific consensus:

There’s a blurry line between “pregnancy” and “life” in this discussion. When we asked [the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists] if the two were interchangeable, we were told that the organization “approach[es] everything from a scientific perspective, and as such, our definition is for when pregnancy begins.” On the question of when life begins, then, the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus.

And that’s hardly surprising. Recall the statistics for in-vitro fertilization. Fewer than half of frozen blastocysts will implant in the woman’s uterus – the scientific definition of pregnancy – and fewer still will result in live births. But all of those blastocysts were fertilized. If life began at that moment, then the doctors who gather and freeze them for in-vitro fertilization are committing mass murder.

“Women must have access to all needed health care … based on scientific facts, not political ideology”

That wasn’t an isolated mistake. MSNBC’s Irin Carmon reported several other examples of Sen. Rubio and other conservatives ignoring the science of pregnancy. He co-sponsored the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act that would prohibit abortions at 20 weeks, although EEGs – actual science – show “the capacity for functional pain perception in preterm neonates probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks.”

And in the Hobby Lobby case, Sen. Rubio cosigned an amicus curae brief that equates contraception with abortion, although the scientific evidence clearly states otherwise:

The Copper-T IUD does not affect ovulation, but it can prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg. It may also prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.

Emergency contraceptive pills will not cause an abortion. EC is not the same as the abortion pill. There is no point in a woman’s cycle when the emergency contraceptive pills available in the United States would end a pregnancy once it has started. Hormonal emergency contraceptive pills don’t have any effect if you are already pregnant.

As the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology wrote last summer:

Women must have access to all needed health care – from mammograms to prenatal visits to reproductive care – based on scientific facts, not political ideology. ACOG opposes Texas HB2 and SB1, which jeopardize women’s health care and interfere with medical practice and the patient-physician relationship. Politicians are not elected to, nor should they, legislate the practice of medicine or step foot into our exam rooms.

Not surprisingly, the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature ignored the scientific facts and imposed their political ideology, and by September the new law’s medically-irrelevant restrictions will reduce the number of full-service women’s health clinics in Texas from 41 to just 6.

“An appeal to authority”

And why shouldn’t legislators ignore science, James Taranto asked in the Wall Street Journal:

Of all the silly things written on the subject of global warming, [Ruth] Marcus’s and [Juliet] Lapidos’s offerings are surely among the most recent. Apart from that they’re entirely typical of the genre of global-warmist opinion journalism, in which ignorant journalists taunt politicians for their ignorance but have no argument beyond an appeal to authority. Lapidos: “Does Mr. Rubio think scientists are lying? Or that they don’t know what they’re talking about? Either way, what leads him to believe that the ‘portrait’ of climate change offered by scientists is inaccurate?”

Appeals to authority aren’t necessarily fallacious, except in the realm of formal deductive logic, where they entail adopting the unfounded premise that the authority is infallible. In informal logic – such as political debate at its best – an appeal to authority can be a sound argument if the authority is both relevant and trusted. And when dealing with complicated matters in which one lacks specialized expertise.

Note the clever sleight-of-hand. Taranto claims that scientific authorities are only legitimate if they are “trusted.” He continues:

This columnist is probably as unqualified as Marcus or Lapidos to evaluate the scientific merits of global warmism. But because we distrust climate scientists, we’re with Rubio in being inclined to think it’s a bill of goods. The trouble for global-warmist journalists like Marcus and Lapidos is that an appeal to the authority of a distrusted source undermines rather than strengthens one’s argument.

Did you catch that? Taranto argues that citing climate scientists is a fallacious “appeal to authority” … because he doesn’t trust them.

“The draft journal paper … contained errors [and] in our view did not provide a significant advancement in the field”

Taranto then cites, as his reason to distrust climate scientists, a National Review article that quotes a debunked claim about a paper written by climate change denier Lennart Bengtsson. The paper was rejected by the journal Environmental Research Letters, and for good reason:

The draft journal paper by Lennart Bengtsson that Environmental Research Letters declined to publish, which was the subject of this morning’s front page story of The Times, contained errors, in our view did not provide a significant advancement in the field, and therefore could not be published in the journal.

The decision not to publish had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘activism’ on the part of the reviewers or the journal, as suggested in The Times’ article; the rejection was solely based on the content of the paper not meeting the journal’s high editorial standards

The referees selected to review this paper were of the highest calibre and are respected members of the international science community. The comments taken from the referee reports were taken out of context and therefore, in the interests of transparency, we have worked with the reviewers to make the full reports available.

In other words, a reporter made headlines with a botched story about the rejection of a journal article, the National Review repeated the botched story, and James Taranto trusts botched journalism but not climate scientists.

Senator Rubio and other conservatives are free to reject scientific facts. And progressives are equally free to criticize those who ignore scientific facts. Both of those positions are legitimate political dissent. But political dissent is not the same as scientific debate. On both climate change and pregnancy, the science is clear … and Sen. Rubio and his defenders are incorrect.


Happy Saturday!