If science doesn't fit, just invent your own

June 20, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - The medical examiners delivered their autopsy report in the most matter-of-fact tone. Terri Schiavo's brain had atrophied to half the normal size for a woman her age. Her eyes, the focus of that famous videotape, saw nothing. She was blind.

The men couldn't say why Mrs. Schiavo had collapsed 15 years ago. But they could say she wasn't abused by her husband. They could say that "no amount of treatment or rehabilitation would have reversed" her condition. There was no doubt about it.

Case closed? As the press conference replayed, the television screen spelled out a question for cable viewers: "Does this change opinions?" Did the facts of a case that had so divided the country, so politicized the fate of one woman, make a difference?

For Mrs. Schiavo's parents, the answer was no. The Schindlers still insist their daughter related to them and tried to speak. Their lawyer said it only proved "she was not terminal."

This case was never solely about medicine. But the question on the TV screen illustrated the times we live in - times when facts can exist in a separate universe from opinions. And a country in which science is not seen as a matter of black and white but increasingly a matter of red and blue.

The Schiavo case is not the only example. The climate is equally apparent in the struggle over what the Bush administration calls "climate change" - and everyone else calls global warming. The only way to justify doing nothing about global warming now is to deliberately muddle the science.

So, too, the struggle over evolution is no longer overtly between scientists and religious fundamentalists. It's between the science establishment and the handful of front men with doctorates who support "intelligent design." Their credentials make it seem as if evolution was also a matter of genuine scientific debate.

James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth describes the trend this way: "If science doesn't fit the ideology, you shop and find your own science." Just last week, the Heritage Foundation, an overtly conservative think tank, was given a government platform to debunk an earlier study on virginity pledges.

The original, peer-reviewed study by researchers at Columbia and Yale found that young people who make virginity pledges may delay intercourse, but ultimately end up with similar rates of sexually transmitted diseases as their peers. The Heritage team makes a counterclaim that pledgers have lower STDs and fewer risky behaviors.

With its flawed methodology, the Heritage study may never be published, but as Mr. Wagoner said, "They don't have to win the scientific debate, they only have to muddy the water." In a day when unvetted research becomes public as quickly as rumors on the Internet, it enters the data bank as "scientific proof" that virginity pledges "work."

As Peter Bearman, co-author of the original study, says, "Science has often been deployed for political reasons. The deployment of science is different than the distortion of science. That's what is happening now."

Maybe it's a good sign that even ideologues still need scientists to make their case legitimate. But what happens when science is seen and even skewed as partisan? Is one scientist's fact given no more weight than another's opinion?

At the height of the Schiavo furor, I saw a protester carrying a sign that asked: "How do you kill someone while she's smiling at you?" Now we know that Terri Schiavo couldn't smile. Does this fact change even one opinion?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.