Palin the Coy Creationist?

August 29, 2008

Via PZ Myers, it looks like Republican VP pick Sarah Palin is the sort of Republican ruler who thinks it’s ok to be in charge of the science education without actually knowing much about how science works. She apparently agreed in a debate that “creationism” should be taught alongside science… but then backed off the stance a bit when it came to specifics, falling back on the ultimately evasive ‘discussion of alternatives’ rhetoric.

“My dad did talk a lot about his theories of evolution,” she said. “He would show us fossils and say, ‘How old do you think these are?’ “

“His” theories of evolution? The always ready and reliable dating method of “ask children how old things look to them?” I’d like to hear a little more about exactly what her father taught, because while hardly indicative of anything, this little statement sets off a few red flags.

Of course, maybe this is a reason to vote for McCain: the VP slot has about as little influence on education policy as any major political position, which is a win-win for students in Alaska.

In any case, the platform of Palin’s own party is solidly, undeniably creationist.

The Republican Party of Alaska platform says, in its section on education: “We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory.”

Palin said at the time (when running to, in part, hold sway over the state’s education policy) that she hadn’t really given much thought to the issue. I wonder if that’s changed?


McCain Picks Sarah Palin as VP… Analysis

August 29, 2008

Palin has landed? If so, it looks like I was right about McCain’s strategy in VP picks. It only remains to be seen whether or not Obama’s failure to anticipate, or at least pro-actively counter, this move will cost him in the way I expect.

When it comes to message, Palin ironically seems to undercut virtually every major line of criticism the McCain camp has so-far employed against Obama. Palin was a former beauty-pageant contestant: surely the crown jewel of the “vapid celebrity” image. Palin has little political experience (undercutting McCain’s claims of similar worries about Obama) and an abuse-of-power scandal under her belt (playing into the “3rd term for Bush” narrative). But the sort of people who buy into these sorts of character narratives are notoriously immune to hypocrisy, and even if they weren’t, what really McCain needs more than anything else is something that will shake up the race big time and keep the “bitter Hillary supporters” narrative in play. Palin fits the bill.

While Palin isn’t actually the first woman to be a Vice-Presidential nominee, that actually matters far less than the possibility that she could be the first woman to become Vice-President, and with her on the ticket, some measure of Obama’s uniquely historic appeal of a “first” is definitively blunted.

Like I said previously: this is a savvy move, and one that Obama’s camp had every opportunity to strangle in the crib. Either they don’t think it will play out in McCain’s favor, or they think that Biden will have some advantage that I’ve yet to see myself. Palin is also as right-wing as they come on social issues, completing McCain’s own retreat from his former life as a maverick and near-independent.


Conscience For Me But Not For Thee: The Case for Pro-Life Docs and Pharmacists

August 22, 2008

In two recent threads over at Pharyngula, one about a poll and the other about some recent comments from HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, I’ve gotten myself caught up in some pretty heated exchanges over the issue of pro-life doctors, and their impact on reproductive choice and access to health care.

This controversy has been building for some time, as legislatures and now licensing boards are increasingly confronting the question of whether, and to what degree, the consciences of anti-abortion doctors should be protected. More and more women are startled to find local doctors and pharmacists refusing what they had assumed were basic and perfectly legal prescriptions.

Now, as far as the original issues go, most of the things that anti-abortion docs, pharmacists, and their advocates are currently pushing for are indeed overboard. The idea that a doctor can refuse to refer a patient to another doctor, or refuse to even give them information, is unjustifiable. And if a CVS pharmacy wants to offer the pill to its customers, then it has all the cause in the world to only hire and retain staff that are willing to dispense it. It’s simply not unjust discrimination to fire someone if their conscience prevents them from doing what the employer needs done, and no reasonable (reasonable on the employer’s terms) accommodation can be found.

Unfortunately, many of my pro-choice compatriots have, I think the wrong idea themselves, asserting principles of their own that go far beyond the right of employers to set the conditions of employment. When it comes down to it, it seems that many people believe that doctors who refuse on ethical and/or religious grounds to prescribe birth control pills, pharmacists that refuse to fill such orders, or even, it seems ob/gyns that resist performing elective abortions should either ignore their consciences or essentially leave their chosen professions. But the justifications given for this harsh ultimatum are, I think fatally flawed.

Two principles in particular are, I think twisted or misapplied to this situation: the idea that pro-life doctors are forcing things on their patients, and the idea that pro-life doctors and pharmacists aren’t doing “their job.”

Doctors Have No Right To Force Their Choices on People

As general principle, this idea Is central to most cannons of medical ethics and medical license boards. And justly so. It’s based, first and foremost, on the idea that people of sound mind have an absolute right to accept or refuse medical care, and to pick the treatment plans they are comfortable with under the advice of the physician. It’s based on a laudable ethic of not forcing something on someone without their consent.

The problem is that this ethic seems to fall by the wayside whenever people start considering the views of people they don’t like. Or it gets implausibly twisted, so that the “forcees” are claiming to be the victims. It takes a true mangling of language to assert that someone not doing something for you constitutes forcing you to do anything. But that appears to be precisely what it going on here.

Consider the common assertion that doctors who refuse to prescribe birth control, especially when they practice in far-flung areas and stats that offer little choice in doctors to begin with, are “forcing” their own preachy choices on the patient. But are they?

When a family doctor sets up a shingle in a small town, people’s access to health care improves in real terms. But now suppose that the doctor refuses to prescribe birth control or perform elective abortions. Has the doctor actually “forced” anything on anyone? His or her values? His or her services?

In virtually all routine situations, no. The people in the town are certainly no worse off than they were before the doctor arrived. The doctor’s existence provides some benefits, but perhaps not all the benefits they’d want. Demand that the doctor violate his or her conscience or else find another profession, and you might well end up with no nearby doctor at all. The same goes for a hypothetical “pro-life” pharmacy.

Yes, people in that situation lack access to things they want and need, and are protected by law. But that’s the exact same situation they were in before the anti-abortion/anti-pill doctor set up shop.

So what’s the solution? Well, if we really care about access to birth control, if that’s really something we consider to be a moral value or even an assured, positive right, who has the responsibility to supply it? Does that responsibility fall almost entirely on the doctor who thinks it’s immoral, just because he happens to be the most local? Or does it fall on all the people who think it’s a basic right? If you answered the former, I have to admit that I’m simply flabbergasted.

The situation here is a little like the often confused outrage at “scalpers” who, during a disaster, offer things like water bottles for sale at ridiculously inflated prices. These people are routinely condemned as greedy, and they certainly are. But somehow it never occurs to all these outraged moralists that, if people in a disaster have some sort of positive right to receive water (free or cheaply), that this right cannot possibly be a burden and a responsibility that falls on some people more than others. At least the scalpers are offering water for sale at all. Rarely have any of the outraged people rushed over to offer even a drop of their own water, at any price. If the scalpers are as greedy as their inflated prices, then the moralists shaking their heads are themselves infinitely greedier.

Blaming the scalpers for a lack of available water, or blaming pro-life doctors for lack of available abortion services and birth control, is, in the end, nothing more than crude scapegoating. It takes the focus, rather conveniently I might add, off of the collective failure for which the moralists themselves are implicated.

And the further irony is that the moralists’ proposed solutions often wouldn’t really help anyone overall. Scalping only works when there is an extremely limited water supply: i.e. there’s too little water to go around in the first place. If scalpers simply gave away all their supplies for free, there would still be too little water: in fact, in the end, there would be exactly the same number of people with and without water. All that would be different is the method by which these people would be chosen (and the usual alternative, first come=first serve, is arguably no more “fair” than rationing the supply by price, which at least has some built in mechanism for assessing people’s relative need for the water).

Likewise, if anti-abortion/anti-pill physicians and pharmacies left the business, as their foes seem to suggest they should, there would still be the same shortage of medical care and lack of access to birth control that we started with.

From where I sit, that makes this issue look a heck of a lot more like an act of partisan revenge than a sound policy or pro-patient principle.

If They Don’t Want to Do What (I Say) the Job Entails, They Should Find Another Job!

This second principle, uttered as if it were an obvious truism, is in fact an utterly bizarre essentialism. Obviously, if we are talking about an employer defining what “the job entails” and finding someone wanting, there’s no problem. But this isn’t the sense in which some people mean “the job.” They mean it in a more cosmic sense: turning mere convention into Platonic form.

Who says that the role of being an ob/gyn, a family doc, or a pharmacist must involve prescribing or dispensing contraceptives? What defines that role such that it’s supposedly essential to this or that specialty? Is this some sort of immutable law of the universe? No. To the extent that they are set and regulated at all, the required roles of various professions (and the permitted variations) are set by committee or political process, not fate. And those debates have to deal with the very political and ethical questions we’re already considering.

Thus, asserting that elective birth control must be part of the role of certain doctors is little more than a begged question. If you regard a fetus or even a fertilized embryo to be a being with moral rights, then harming it without dire need would not legitimately be part of the role of any physician. Reject that idea, and it’s a legitimate part of reproductive health and choice. I certainly have my opinions, but I also have a respect for the importance of social pluralism. And we cannot simply presume anyone’s opinion from the get go when determining what medical ethics demand or deny.

A more reasonable question is: can anti-abortion doctors be reasonably accommodated into our medical system with their existence causing serious additional harm to anyone? I think the answer is yes.

My opponents disagree. They imagine Jehovah’s Witnesses as ER docs who then refuse to transfuse blood to car accident victims. But these examples are absurd. No one would hire such a doctor to such a position in the first place, and if one did, it’s unlikely it could be licensed to accept emergency patients (who are often in a very different situation than a person seeking a physician or going to a pharmacy). On the other hand, plenty of people in the United States not only would have no problem with seeing an anti-abortion ob/gyn, but would favor going to one. Is denying the possibility of this choice even in keeping with the respect for autonomy that underlies pro-choice politics in the first place? I think not.

The early pioneers of reproductive choice knew that making it a reality meant actually physically and financially getting doctors and products out to women everywhere. If choice is a positive right and not just a negative one (i.e. not merely something that the government cannot ban, but something that must actively be ensured, presumably by society itself) then it’s going to take a tall order of money, time, and resources to supply it. Butting heads with anti-abortion doctors and pharmacists, or demanding they conform or go out of business, isn’t even remotely the same thing.


Miracles and Medical Care

August 18, 2008

Via CNN comes this story detailing the ways in which people’s religious faith and belief in otherworldly intervention colors the way they deal with medical care. This issue raises some really hard questions when it comes to dealing with religion vs. science, belief vs. the lack of it. Take this case:

Pat Loder, a Milford, Michigan, woman whose two young children were killed in a 1991 car crash, said she clung to a belief that God would intervene when things looked hopeless.

“When you’re a parent and you’re standing over the body of your child who you think is dying … you have to have that” belief, Loder said.

Do you though? And does it really help in the long run to truly believe things like that?

We often imagine that these sorts of ideas are obviously comforting, but in my experience, the evidence is decidedly mixed. Unrealistic expectations can lead to bitterness. They can stall acceptance and take you out of a situation right when loved ones need you the most.

And in some ways, these sort of “comforting beliefs” don’t necessarily seem to bring the comfort they would logically imply. Heaven, objectively, should be an absolutely comforting idea that essentially solves the fear of death and heals all hurts. But in practice, the human psyche just seems to grieve no matter what one believes: beliefs are errant trivialities don’t really reach down into the deep, animal well of loss.

On the other hand, these sorts of reactions are, for many people, unavoidable. They can’t really be fought or regulated or even argued with.

The other issue here is that of the way a belief in miracles distorts people’s medical decisions, making them postpone taking loved ones off futile life support, and in countless cases, continuing pointless treatments when comfort, hospice, and simply preparing for death are more important.

It is true that there are occasional cases of so called medical miracles (though rarely are they without explanation and underlying causality). But as the CNN survey shows, beliefs about medical miracles are sort of like people playing the lottery: extremely unlikely occurrences are coloring and altering the decisions of masses that are, in the aggregate, probably not worth it. Should an incredibly unlikely, 1 in a million chance that someone who has been coded for hours will come back with any sort of brain function at all really be a gamble worth, well, millions of other futile medical efforts that only traumatize the family, cost millions more (that could be used instead to save the more likely savable), and sometimes even just make a patients final moments all the more agonizing? Probably not.

The problem is simply that its very easy to see futility in the aggregate, where likely outcomes seem inevitable, but simply not accept it in specific, where ideas of heroic salvation and turning a corner can never be fully dismissed.

And that’s sort of the bizarre part. If miracles could really happen, intentional miracles directed by a being like God, then it hardly seems to make sense to debate whether or not to keep someone on life support indefinitely. An all powerful being would be able to work its miracle on a person no matter what amount of medical care had been given or withheld. The idea, indeed, of “waiting” for a miracle, as if to give it more chances to happen, seems, in the context of a theism than envisions and all-knowing, all powerful God, utterly bizarre.

Update: Here’s an all too common outcome of many heralded medical miracles: while unexpected persistence can surprise, it just drags out the inevitable further, as with this premie who appeared to rally after being declared dead and then chilled (which slowed its remaining metabolism, only to die for real a day later.


Public Support for “Fairness” Doctrine Disgusting

August 15, 2008

There’s just not a whole lot to say about it.

41% of Americans believe that the government should “require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary.” Many even want to extend the doctrine, which would essentially enforce points of view on the listening market rather than letting listeners decide, on the internet, which is even more absurd.

I find this poll result almost as upsetting as the high number of Americans who believe in old-school creationism, or can’t find their own country on a map of the world.

It is hard to know exactly how people interepreted the poll questions. Perhaps they didn’t entirely understand what they were agreeing with: perhaps they only meant that they wished media sources as a whole were more balanced and thoughtful. I’m all for that. But the way to achieve it is by promoting, recommending, and endorsing with your feet those voices that take the time to find reason, evenhandedness, and balance.

Forcing by regulation show by show, site by site balance, on the other hand, is as silly as demanding that two people having an argument in person each give equal time defending the other guys position. The whole point of the liberal scientific method, the whole point of free speech and open debate, is that we hash things out in adversarial contest. It isn’t that we try to artificially create balance: we find it in the midst of neverending debate. It’s a collective, society-wide process.

The other faulty assumption I suspect is at work here is the idea that there needs to be “balance” across every single medium of communication. But there’s nothing wrong with the fact that conservatives happen to prefer radio, and liberals newspapers, and so on. The point is the views expressed and people’s free access to them, not how those views happen to be transmitted.


Double Standard for SWAT Shootings: Police Need to Address It, Not Just Deny It

August 14, 2008

I’m not sure I approve of the choice of examples, but the basic point made by Stephen Littau in this post is worth making: there’s a huge double standard when it comes to the actions of police officers and ordinary citizens that honest members of law enforcement need to seriously address and explain.

When an officer in the midst of a SWAT-style “dynamic entry” points a gun at an unarmed woman holding a baby and pulls the trigger, killing her, the fear and confusion of the situation alleviate all legal and moral culpability. In fact, they would only face 8 months in jail even if they were to be found culpable. Likewise if an officer fires through a door and hits civilians: it’s okay. Stuff just gets hairy on the job like that.

But when a citizen fires a gun at what they think is an assailant through a door, they not only face the death penalty, but often get it.

It’s true, of course, that every situation is different. Oftentimes the officers are noble people, and the civilians in question are not. But there is an undeniable overall pattern in which the very same mitigating factors are cited to completely exonerate officers in the line of duty, but yet are denied any role at all in the treatment of civilians.

Officers can’t have it both ways: the whole point of their “shock & awe” SWAT warrants is supposedly to surprise people (many of whom are sleeping and never hear the muffled cry of “police” through their walls and closed doors). The inevitable and predictable result is chaos and confusion. The police cannot deliberately and thoughtfully create such a situation and then claim that the chaos justifies anything they (trained professionals) happen to do. And they certainly cannot claim that excuse for themselves, but then at the same time maintain that ordinary citizens who often have no idea what’s going on are fully responsible for everything they do.


Bigfoot Has Heart Attack, Dies En Route to Press Conference

August 14, 2008

Skeptics everywhere are waiting with perfectly normal breath for the imminent press conference: two professional Bigfoot hunters are claiming that they’ve finally bagged a specimen. There’s even a decidedly nasty photo of the find with what looks like an extra from Planet of the Apes stuffed in an ice cream freezer.

The hunters claim several Bigfoots were spotted walking upright in the area the body was found but won’t reveal the location “to protect the creatures”.

The proud caretakers of the alleged Bigfoot body are promising DNA evidence and more convincing documentation soon.

As we know all too well, the follow-up stories will rarely get bigger headlines than the original claims… even if these guys are later exposed as the most blatant of liars. The result is that the idea of Bigfoot will get another cultural “bump” (in internet message-board parlance). The specific content of the “bump” rarely even matters for such things: even the embarrassment of exposed fraud or ridiculous mistake won’t undo the interest generated.

For two guys with a business based around Bigfoot, that’s a pretty hefty motive for shenanigans. They’re going to have quite a burden of proof here.

Update: Looks like we won’t even have to wait. A “legitimate” Bigfoot research outfit makes a pretty open and shut case for “hoax.” All the guys in question have a history of outright hoaxing, and their story here doesn’t hold up either.

They even have a prediction on how everything will go down that sounds right to me:

But instead, here’s what you might expect from the press conference: Biscardi will waltz in with two smiling impostor Russian “scientists” … who will say whatever Biscardi has paid them to say about the “body” that he’ll never allow the press to examine in the flesh.


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