Denial versus Rejecting Sociological Science Experimentation

Filling in for Andrew Sullivan, Jim Manzi writes about conservatives and science:

The debate about evolution is a great example of the kind of sucker play that often ensnares conservatives. Frequently, conservatives are confronted with the assertion that scientific finding X implies political or moral conclusion Y with which they vehemently disagree. Obvious examples include (X = the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary biology, Y = atheism) and (X = increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 will lead to some increase in global temperatures, Y = we must implement a global regulatory and tax system to radically reduce carbon emissions). Those conservatives with access to the biggest megaphones have recently developed the habit of responding to this by challenging the scientific finding X. The same sorry spectacle of cranks, gibberish and the resulting alienation of scientists and those who respect the practical benefits of science (i.e., pretty much the whole population of the modern world) then ensues.

In general, it would be far wiser to challenge the assertion that X implies Y. Scientific findings almost never entail specific moral or political conclusions because the scope of application of science is rarely sufficient. In fact, for the two examples that I provided, I have tried to show in detail that X does not come close to implying Y.

This maps to the circumcision debate perfectly. Too many advocates against medically unnecessary, routine circumcision of male children make the exact same fallacy. Many Americans, with the unquestioning aide of nearly every mass media outlet, has already made the connection: X = voluntary, adult circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection, Y = we must circumcise all males, adult and child, willingly or unwillingly. We’re losing intellectual ground that need not be ceded.

Regardless of what advocates for the rights of children as individual human being state, the battle for X in the example above is already lost. It will be lost for a generation or more. That does not mean X is true. But to pretend that we’re going to win through mere denial is counter-productive. It’s possible to qualify any such recitation of X with a challenge to possible methodological flaws, for example. That should be done. It’s just not going to change the public perception that X is true.

The key, as Mr. Manzi demonstrates, is that any validity in X does not require Y. This is our strength. Logic demands that we leave healthy children intact. Individual rights demands that we leave healthy children intact. Medical ethics demands that we leave healthy children intact. Easy access to condoms demands that we leave healthy children intact. Until the child can consent or needs medical care, his (and her) healthy body is the only proof we need that proxy consent must be limited.

The facts are what they are. We cannot change that, to the extent that the findings are valid. Although it’s useful to remind anyone who misinterprets the scope of those findings that all benefits from genital surgery on healthy children are merely potential, with a very low likelihood of ever being necessary, we do not need to change that. Every study surrounding HIV and male circumcision already involves the two key components we need to demonstrate our case: voluntary and adult. Going beyond those two words requires our reason and intellect to figure out the appropriate application of those facts. We must demand that society use them.