From science to scientism in the Obama era

Science | An excerpt from the newly updated edition of John G. West’s <em>Darwin Day in America</em>
by John G. West
Posted 2/07/15, 11:21 am

When John G. West’s Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science (ISI Books) came out in 2007, I called it “a superb overview of what happens once we start seeing man as an overachieving worm. John West shows how a Darwin Day worldview affects everything from sex and philanthropy to crime and euthanasia.” So it’s great news that a new edition is coming out on Monday, with an update on recent developments.

West, vice president of the Discovery Institute and associate director of the Center for Science and Culture, nails it when he writes, “Our culture is witnessing the rise of what could be called totalitarian science—science so totalistic in its outlook that its defenders claim the right to remake every sphere of human life, from public policy and education to ethics and religion. Science is a wonderful enterprise, but during the Obama era, it’s being twisted in ways that are unhealthy for both science and society.”

West has the background and the reporting ability to develop a strong indictment of the Obama administration’s offenses in this area. The former chair of the Department of Political Science at Seattle Pacific University, he holds a Ph.D. in Government from Claremont Graduate University and is an acute observer of the current scene. But read for yourself—here’s an excerpt from the new edition. —Marvin Olasky

Just how far some [Obama] administration officials were willing to take the idea that science should override ethical concerns became apparent with the disclosure of a multiyear experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) involving more than 1,300 premature infants. As part of the experiment, premature infants were randomly assigned to receive higher or lower levels of oxygen. Those receiving lower levels of oxygen were more likely to die, while those receiving higher levels of oxygen suffered serious eye damage that could lead to blindness. Parents were not informed of the possible increased risk of death for infants enrolled in the study. Nor were most of them informed that researchers recalibrated oxygen equipment to generate false readings, thus preventing medical staff from adjusting oxygen levels based on the individual needs of the infants in their care.

Medical ethicists were appalled. “The word ‘unethical’ doesn’t even begin to describe the egregious and shocking deficiencies in the informed-consent process for this study,” said Michael Carome, MD, the director of the Health Research Group at the nonprofit (and politically liberal) group Public Citizen. “Parents of the infants who were enrolled in this study were misled about its purpose. … They were misled to believe everything being done was in the ‘standard of care’ and therefore posed no predictable risk to the babies.” Carome, who previously served in the Office for Human Research Protections in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, helped lead the effort to expose the misconduct of researchers and to ensure that the abuses did not recur.

The premature-infant study began during the administration of George W. Bush, but it was Obama administration officials who had to respond to the ethical objections raised. They had a choice: acknowledge there was a problem and fix it, or deny any wrongdoing. They chose the latter option.

Early in 2013 it became clear that the NIH’s study was in trouble. The Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued an enforcement letter against the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) because the researchers on the premature-infant study had failed to obtain adequate informed consent from participants. The OHRP required researchers to submit a plan to fix the problem. Yet only a few months later, the OHRP sent a follow-up letter placing its previous enforcement action on hold.

What had happened in the interim? According to Public Citizen, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act “strongly suggest that NIH launched an aggressive campaign to undermine OHRP’s regulatory authority.” Although OHRP was supposed to act as an independent watchdog, NIH officials were allowed to review and rewrite the OHRP’s second compliance letter. A coinvestigator of the study was also allowed to review the draft compliance letter. The full extent of the NIH’s changes to the draft letter could not be ascertained because the Obama administration almost completely redacted the draft versions of the compliance letter it released under the Freedom of Information Act.

“NIH interference in the conduct of an ongoing compliance oversight investigation appears to be unprecedented in the history of OHRP,” wrote Public Citizen. “This interference has seriously compromised the integrity and independence of OHRP’s compliance oversight investigation.”

Public Citizen compared NIH’s efforts to “a pharmaceutical company’s being permitted by … the FDA Commissioner’s office to review and edit a warning letter drafted by [the] FDA Office of Scientific Investigations about violations of the FDA’s human subjects protection regulations involving a clinical trial sponsored by that company.” Public Citizen noted that such an occurrence “obviously would be viewed as grossly unacceptable and, presumably, would never be permitted.”

Chief among the defenders of the premature-infant study was NIH head Francis Collins. One of Obama’s key science appointees, Collins was known for his work as head of the Human Genome Project as well as for being an outspoken evangelical Christian. Unlike most evangelicals, however, Collins had supported Obama for president in 2008, and many of his views were out of sync with those of other evangelicals. He was among the NIH officials permitted to review the OHRP’s second compliance letter, and according to Public Citizen, he led a public relations campaign to undermine the OHRP’s initial findings. Citing e-mail messages, Public Citizen accused Collins of seeking to have the second OHRP compliance letter issued the day before an article coauthored by Collins was to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine defending the premature-infant study. Public Citizen found it “disturbing” that Collins and his coauthors “essentially leaked” to journal editors “the fact that OHRP soon would be issuing a compliance oversight letter to UAB putting on hold all compliance actions related to the investigation.”

In their public defense of the NIH-funded study, Collins and his coauthors insisted that “investigators had no reason to foresee that infants in one study group would have a higher risk of death than would those in the other group.” Public Citizen later called that claim “disingenuous,” providing documentation showing that key researchers were aware of and discussed the possibility of a differential death rate from lower oxygen levels. Indeed, one of the purposes of the study was to find out whether there was a differential death rate. In their article, Collins and his coauthors also neglected to disclose that researchers had recalibrated the oxygen equipment to prevent individualized care or that most parents had never been informed of this crucial fact. Science trumped ethics yet again.

The Obama administration’s embrace of scientism was not limited to public policy. In 2014 President Obama ventured into the broader culture wars over science by taping a video introduction to the Cosmos television series hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The creators of the series revealed that they had not asked for Obama’s involvement; the White House had sought them out. Cosmos was a reboot of an earlier series by the same name hosted by agnostic physicist Carl Sagan. Sagan had been criticized for trying to use science to promote metaphysical materialism, and in that sense Tyson’s new series was a worthy heir to Sagan’s original production. Tyson had previously dismissed God as “an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance,” and the producers of the new Cosmos were known for believing that “religion sucks” and for warning students: “Stay away from the church. In the battle over science vs. religion, science offers credible evidence for all the serious claims it makes. The church says, ‘Oh, it’s right here in this book, see? The one written by people who thought the sun was magic?’” Given such views, it wasn’t surprising that the new Cosmos portrayed religion as the enemy of science, claimed that science shows how life originated through unguided processes, and even compared climate-change skeptics to Nazis. Immediately after Obama’s videotaped introduction, the 2014 series replayed a classic clip from the original series in which Carl Sagan professes his allegiance to materialism: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

In many ways, the Obama administration’s scientism reflected the trends documented in the rest of this book, trends that span both political parties and have become ever more pronounced during the past several years. Our culture is witnessing the rise of what could be called totalitarian science—science so totalistic in its outlook that its defenders claim the right to remake every sphere of human life, from public policy and education to ethics and religion. The evidence for the rise of this kind of scientific authoritarianism is not just anecdotal. A study published in 2010 confirmed that in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in what some have called the “authoritarian tone” of science, exemplified by the growing use in science journalism of phrases such as “science requires,” “science dictates,” and “science tells us we should.”

The area of ecology has seen increasing calls for coercive measures to control human population in the name of saving nonhuman life. Zoologist Eric Pianka at the University of Texas urges the reduction of the Earth’s human population by up to 90 percent and calls on the government to confiscate all the earnings of any couple who has more than two children. “You should have to pay more when you have your first kid—you pay more taxes,” he insists. “When you have your second kid you pay a lot more taxes, and when you have your third kid you don’t get anything back, they take it all.” Shades of John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich in the 1970s.

In his recent book The War on Humans, lawyer and bioethicist Wesley J. Smith has documented how the growing coercive utopianism of many environmentalists is grounded in a visceral hatred of humans and the denial that human beings are special or unique. In the words of zoologist Pianka, “Humans are no better than bacteria,” and “Other things on this earth have been here longer than us … and they have a right to this planet too—that includes wasps that sting you, ants that bite you, scorpions and rattlesnakes.” Pianka goes on to criticize humans for “sucking everything we can out of mother Earth and turning it into fat human bio-mass.”

This disregard for humans reflects a reductionist form of Darwinian theory. Christopher Manes, one of the early leaders of the environmentalist group Earth First!, explains:

Taken seriously, evolution means there is no basis for seeing humans as more advanced or developed than any other species. Homo sapiens is not the goal of evolution, for as near as we can tell evolution has no telos—it simply unfolds, life-form after life-form. Elephants are no more developed than toadstools, fish are no less advanced than birds, cabbages have as much ecological status as kings. Darwin invited humanity to face the fact that the observation of nature has revealed not one scrap of evidence that humankind is superior or special, or even particularly more interesting than, say, lichen.

A similar Darwinian worldview inspired ecoterrorist James Lee, who in 2010 took staff of the Discovery Channel hostage. Lee called on the Discovery Channel to “talk about Evolution. Talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people’s brains until they get it!” Lee’s stated goal was to save “what’s left of the non-human Wildlife by decreasing the Human population. That means stopping the human race from breeding any more disgusting human babies!”

The Darwinian denial of human exceptionalism can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. On the Left, there is Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, author of A Darwinian Left. Singer’s view that “the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee” was discussed in chapter 14, as was his insistence that “Darwin’s theory undermined the foundations” of our traditional “Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe.” On the Right, there is John Derbyshire, who was a longtime writer for National Review until being dismissed in 2012 after authoring an article for another publication arguing that blacks are more antisocial and less intelligent than whites. Derbyshire argues that racial differences are the products of evolution. He has also written that “the broad outlook on human nature implied by Darwinian ideas contradicts the notion of human exceptionalism, without which the Abrahamic religions lose their point.” He added that “modern biologists, informed by Darwin,” know “we are merely another branch on Nature’s tree.”

Scientism has expanded in the area of medicine and bioethics, where the old idea of eugenics is being revived in the name of good science. In 2012 Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor for NBC News, publicly defended eliminating handicapped babies through abortion: “I am pro-science, so I believe that this is a great way to prevent diseases.” Of course, if it is “pro-science” to support eradicating babies with genetic flaws, it must be “anti-science” to oppose it. In a 2014 Huffington Post article titled “Let’s (Cautiously) Celebrate the ‘New Eugenics,’” Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project went further, assuring readers that they had nothing to fear from efforts to improve humans through genetic engineering.

Still on the horizon are the even more radical “transhumanists,” who argue that humanity’s goal should be bioengineering a new race of supermen. According to transhumanist Nick Bostrom, “human nature” is “a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” “Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution,” proclaims Bostrom. “Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.” Bostrom is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, an indication of how ideas that used to be on the fringe have seeped into the mainstream.

From the newly updated edition of Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science by John G. West. Reprinted with permission of ISI Books.