January 28, 2007

Knowledge is good

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, Science and Technology — tomemos @ 1:47 pm

Recently, it seems that the news has been rife with one of my least-favorite things: the denial, rejection, or disapproval of new information or research that does not fit with one’s worldview. Many of you know me as a skeptic, so you would expect that I would be in favor of taking all news with a grain of salt. I am. However, what we are dealing with here is not “skepticism” in the proper sense, since these are not cases where individuals want to get all the facts before making a judgment. This is simply refusing to accept facts (or hypotheses, if you want) which one doesn’t like, which is actually just another form of skepticism’s opposite, credulity. Some of this is due to identity politics, some is due to a warped moral sense, and some is due to out-and-out lying. Which is which? You make the call:

•Fox News’s John Gibson refusing to recant the claim that the Indonesian school Barack Obama went to as a child was a “madrassa” (implication: a conservative Islamic school), even after a CNN reporter visited the school and found it to be a secular public school. Infuriating quote:

HOST: Yeah, [CNN] sent a reporter out there.

GIBSON: Yeah, cause they got a reporter in Indonesia, probably went to the very madrassa, now works for CNN. But that reporter went out there, and what did they see when they went to the madrassa where Barack Obama went to school?

HOST: Kids playing volleyball.

GIBSON: Playing volleyball, right. They didn’t see them in any terrorist training camps?


GIBSON: No. Um, but they probably didn’t show them in their little lessons where they’re bobbing their heads and memorizing the Koran.

If you’re up for some real outrage today, I recommend listening to the audio. You really have to hear Gibson’s disgust that CNN would be so treacherous as to have a reporter in a foreign country, and that they would sink so low as to use him to verify the truth of something.

•Some conservative Christian groups opposing the mandatory vaccination (and some even opposing the optional vaccination) of young women against HPV, the vaccine that causes cervical cancer, because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease so vaccinating against it might send a message that promiscuous sex is okay. Infuriating quote: Jeez, that wasn’t infuriating enough? Well, okay:

“Some people have raised the issue of whether this vaccine may be sending an overall message to teen-agers that, ‘We expect you to be sexually active,’ ” said Reginald Finger, a doctor trained in public health who served as a medical analyst for Focus on the Family before being appointed to the ACIP in 2003.

Wow, pretty scary. Hey, what’s the ACIP? Why, it’s the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the CDC on immunization. Yes, this former James Dobson employee was on a GOVERNMENT PANEL.  (The vaccine was eventually approved, but of course the fight continues.)  Man, I am horrified to think what we might hear from these people if we ever discover an AIDS vaccine. Speaking of which:

•Male circumcision opponents refusing to accept (or, at least, refusing to approve of) the studies that show that male circumcision makes transmission of AIDS less likely, even though the 50-60 percent reduction it seems to cause could save millions of lives. Infuriating quote…is behind a firewall, and I don’t feel like paying five dollars to make fun of it. But if you know anything about the anti-circumcision movement, you can write it yourself: “Circumcision evangelists … false hope … mutilating infants … many Jews and Muslims now oppose …” God, what a less-than-urgent cause that is. I could write a book.

•Some gay rights and animal rights activists refusing to believe that Dr. Charles Roselli’s research on gay sheep is not a precursor to developing a “cure” for being gay, even after Roselli insisted that he was “repulsed” by the idea of sexual eugenics. Infuriating quote: Tennis star and lesbian Martina Navratilova, who “remains unconvinced” despite a personal response from the university assuring her that there was nothing sinister about Roselli’s research:

“The more we play God or try to improve on Mother Nature, the more damage we are doing with all kinds of experiments that either have already turned or will turn into nightmares,” she wrote in an e-mail reply to a reporter’s query. “How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?”

Well, Martina, I suppose that the way they would help humanity would be in the way all other learning has helped humanity: by enhancing our understanding of the world and our place in it. This is good in and of itself, but it’s particularly important with a subject as plagued by ignorance and fear as homosexuality. In a world where many people still believe that homosexuality is a choice, couldn’t research into what causes it to naturally occur help promote understanding? This is the quote that made me want to write about this subject, because I don’t understand how anyone could take a blanket position against knowledge. What is the practical difference between saying the above and saying, as Darwin was headed for Galapagos, “How could short- and long-beaked finches possibly help humanity?”



  1. Tom, this was hilarious and also actually informative.

    Since what we’re dealing with here is obviously a familiar kind of neurotic blindness (Obama went to a madrassa even though I realize that he never went to a madrassa), I’m tempted to bring up Freud’s description of neurotic denials, in which a series of mutually contradictory statements is used as a protestation of innocence.

    The form of these complaints is always threefold: the fact is not true, the fact is true but hurts people, and the fact is true, hurts no-one, but also has no relevance.

    This is the age of Swift Boat; and it’s a reminder that humanism has nothing to do with dogmatic values. It has to do, as you write, with understanding our place in the world, with the aid of rational thought.

    Comment by Joseph Kugelmass — January 28, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

  2. Hm. Are you moderating comments?

    Comment by Joseph Kugelmass — January 28, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

  3. No…though I see that the comment e-mail I got is different than usual. I’ll look over my preferences and make sure everything’s how I want it to be. What happened when you commented?

    Comment by tomemos — January 28, 2007 @ 4:15 pm

  4. I’ve been following the “debate” about the HPV vaccine for some time; its approval was held up by the FDA for years because of these same “concerns.” (the same agency that wouldn’t make Plan B over the counter). Frankly, it’s frightening – no more than a blatant privileging of ideology over public health concerns.

    Comment by brandon — January 29, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  5. In all fairness, though, Tom–what good *have* finches done for humanity?

    Comment by Devin — February 2, 2007 @ 6:17 pm

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