In January, there was the Women’s March, in which many women took part to affirm human equality and diversity — often unaware that the march’s premier sponsor was abortion giant Planned Parenthood.
Now the March for Science is planned for Earth Day, April 22. The march’s website says it will “celebrate and defend science,” which “protects the health of our communities, the safety of our families, the education of our children, the foundation of our economy and jobs, and the future we all want to live in and preserve for coming generations.”
Organizers worry that the current administration may ignore the threat of worldwide climate change and reject “evidence-based policies” for addressing it. That concern is widely shared. In fact, religious leaders like Pope Francis have done more to call attention to our moral obligations on this issue than many scientists have.
But the organizers also want everyone to hail science as “a vital feature of a working democracy” that leads to “better, healthier lives for all people.” And here a reality check is in order.
Science is a particular method for gathering a particular kind of knowledge. It is morally neutral. By analyzing nature into its most basic elements, it can provide great power for manipulating nature to serve human goals. It has little to say about what those goals should be, and its power can be used for good or evil.
Scientific findings can be used to cure disease or weaponize viruses for germ warfare, to provide cheap energy or destroy cities, to serve democracy or undermine it by classifying some people as biologically “inferior” to others.
To be effective, plans for doing any of these things must be “evidence-based.” Deciding which of them to do must draw from a source beyond science — from morality, which for many of us involves recognizing a Lawgiver whose wisdom transcends our flawed human plans.
Yet leading scientists have ridiculed religious faith and dismissed ethical concerns about their zeal for “progress” at any price.
That zeal has produced some disasters: the eugenics movement’s support for laws allowing involuntary sterilization prior to World War II, the U.S. Public Health Service’s shameful mistreatment of poor African-American men in its Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the deliberate injection of hepatitis virus into developmentally disabled children at the Willowbrook State School in New York in the 1960s, the drive for government-funded experiments treating unborn human beings as laboratory rats after the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions of 1973.
Beginning in the 1990s, leading scientific organizations insisted that stem cell research involving the destruction of human embryos was a privileged path to amazing cures. Their campaign involved wild exaggeration and outright falsehoods. Voters and politicians nevertheless poured billions of dollars into this project, ignoring the objections of Americans who respect human life in its early stages.
The result? There have been no cures. Embryonic stem cell research has been outdistanced by adult stem cell research and other alternatives with more promise for therapies. Diverting those billions of dollars away from these avenues surely slowed medical progress.
So let us give three cheers for science as a way to understand our natural world. But let us have some healthy skepticism when scientists say the rest of us should relax and let them run the country. Let us remember that the need to be evidence-based also applies to self-serving claims by scientists.
And let us hope that any March for Science will involve some self-reflection and humility among scientists, who need guidance from the rest of us as much as we need their contributions.
Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.