Please don’t do this

So, I’m arguing with someone on the internet (because that is apparently what I do with my life) and I keep running across this sort of argument “Science proves that a fetus becomes human when it can survive outside the womb.” Please do not say this. First, science has proved no such thing. But more importantly, the statement itself is confused.

In common language, to be a human is to be a person, and the words are used pretty interchangeably, since everyone instinctively recognizes that to be human is to be a person “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” But when you are discussing medical ethics, the distinction between what is a human and what is a person is precisely the subject under debate, so you have to make careful distinctions.

“Human” is the species. I am a human. My cat is not a human. I did not become human; I have always been a human. If science were to prove that an unborn child can become human, you would have to demonstrate a process whereby two human parents came together, contributed a human ovum and a human sperm, and produced an inhuman embryo. If it is not human, what species can it be?

What is actually under debate is the “personhood” of the unborn. Personhood is an ethical and political category that serves two purposes: to assign to non-human organisms the rights that are normally accorded to humans, or to remove from humans the rights that they would normally have. So, for instance, an animal rights activist might argue for the personhood of dolphins, in order to accord them the rights of life and liberty. You might also argue that, if we ever found intelligent alien life, or elves, that they would be considered persons, even though they were not human. At the other end, when the US constitution was first written, Southern slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of the census. You can see how well that went.

So in the original statement, science has not proved that an embryo becomes human. What the person is really arguing is that an unborn child becomes a person when they can survive outside the womb. It’s a valid position to take, but again, science doesn’t prove it. Science can’t prove it, because personhood is not a scientific category. The ability of a fetus to survive outside the womb is called viability. Medical technology is constantly pushing the boundary of how early viability can be established. So all that “science” can do is reveal the historical data of how early viability has been established.

What you are left with is an unsubstantiated argument that personhood should be established according to the functionality of human organism’s lungs. This strikes me as an extremely tenuous argument.


It was ninth grade, my first year back in public school after four years of homeschooling. My parents had made special arrangements for me to attend a school where several teachers were members of our church. Naturally, they also arranged for me to take the classes they were teaching. So, Mrs. Hinkle for choir, Mr. Torbert for history, and Mr. Calloway for general science.

The science class was probably a poor placement. Other kids at my academic level were taking chemistry in ninth grade, but my mom was nervous about her record as a homeschool science teacher, and Mr. Calloway was considered one of the best science teachers in the state. But the thing he won awards for was his ability to inspire at-risk students. I wasn’t exactly at risk; a lot of the information we covered was stuff I already knew. But I did learn a thing.

So the story that sticks out the most involves an airplane. What we can agree on is that unequal air pressure on the wings keeps the plane up. In eighth grade, reading my science book at home, I learned that the air flows faster over the top of the wings. The bottom of the wing is flat, so the air flows straight across. The top of the wing is convex, so that air has to flow vertically as well as laterally, in order to conserve motion as the plane passes through. That extra distance creates a vacuum and pulls the airplane up.

Mr. Calloway got it backwards, lecturing a class of thirty mildly uninterested fourteen and fifteen year olds. He said that the air under the wing flows faster, creating a high pressure system. Either way, the pressure is lower on top of the wing, and the plane goes up, but I caught the teacher in a quibble. So I thought I’d let him know.

It didn’t go quite the way I’d thought. The teacher held his ground and just repeated himself, as if the problem was my lack of understanding. So I started to explain the difference between what he was saying, and what I understood. But there was this look in his eyes.

Fortunately, I realized pretty quick that the conversation was no longer about science. It was now about me running his class. He might have been wrong, but I was now wronger.

So I shut up, and I never did verify on which side of the wing the air flows faster. But I remember that event every time I’m in a military briefing, and some bright young Soldier takes a moment to contradict his commander.

Doo-Dah Chemistry

I found this anecdote by William Tuning in a 1981 collection of science fiction stories edited by Isaac Asimov. I take it to be a true story.

Several years ago there was a great deal of talk about what was thought to be a new molecular form of water — a long-chain molecule of H2O which had silicates present in it and, it was theorized, formed directly from gases and solid components in crevices of quartz rocks.

This material was called polywater, and it excited a great deal of scientific inquiry at the time. The interest in polywater was, of course, involved with what was thought to be the peculiar nature of its formation and some odd properties which it seemed to possess.

Needless to say, a number of research laboratories were conducting quite a bunch of experiments–hoping for some kind of polywater breakthrough.

It was during this period that I had occasion to visit a chemist friend who was in charge of some of these polywater experiments in his laboratory. He went on at some length to enthusiastically explain all the benchwork in progress under his supervision.

Since I have no knowledge of science, I was not greatly interested in the conversation and I soon grew bored. As a polite means of getting shut of all this talk about polywater, I suggested that we might adjourn to a local water-hole for some lunch.

My friend expressed his regrets, explaining that he could not leave the lab unattended, since he had to monitor all these tom-fool experiments that were in progress.

“So you can’t go to lunch,” I said.
“That’s right,” he replied. “I’m on polywater duty all the day.”

I must be on vacation

Everything I read seems interesting, and worthy of comment.  Either everyone goes on vacation at the same time that I do, or I function more coherently with a little bit of rest.

Here’s five links, with some commentary:

  1. Polar Bears.  If you remember, a few years ago, polar bears got upgraded to protected status.  The story was that global warming was wiping out their habitat, which consists of ice floes.  Here’s an article on how Scientists count, and how easy it is to (mis)count them.  For instance, they only put radio collars on adult females because juvenile bears grow too fast and could choke on the collars, and the adult male bears necks are bigger than their heads.  It’s a common problem we have in the Army as well.
  2. Catholics usually make super-hero movies instead of zombie movies.  It’s because zombies are better left to people who don’t believe in purgatory.
  3. There’s a new concept floating around that it is impossible to unilaterally forgive somebody. One party has to forgive, and the other party has to receive forgiveness, repent, etc. You can see this concept at work in Salvation.  Nobody gets saved against their will, and nobody in hell will be allowed to offer the excuse that God should have just forgiven them instead of holding on to all that bitterness.  Presumably for God forgiveness ends in a restored relationship.

    But this makes me wonder what the right word is for this other stuff we’ve been pushing.  When you get mugged, and the next day you decide to write off the experience and offer the open hand to a fellow you will likely never see again, if that isn’t forgiveness in the Biblical sense, what is it?  For that matter, at the end of days, when God is judging the quick and the dead of all their deeds, and our hypothetical mugger comes up, having never repented, and the Lord of Heaven lays out a just sentence for all his crimes, do you stand up and say, “But Lord, I forgave him!”?

  4. It’s been a saying in my family for a long time that the best way to stifle a child’s love of reading is to put him in a primary or secondary English class.  Here’s a post that covers why.
  5. Last, a fascinating post on the trouble of translating mythological sounding words in scripture.  Are they Fauns or Jinn, or just plain old goats?  Well, it was fascinating until the part about Adam and Eve. That was just horrifying.

All Fall Down

It’s interesting to think that, without God, science turns into engineering, philosophy turns into vocabulary, and ethics turns into politics.  With God, all of these fields of study are transformed into subcategories of theology.

For those who want to protest, here’s what I mean:

Unless there is a God, there is no designer for the universe.  Without a designer, there is no design.  If there is no design, then there is no reason to want to discover the fundamental principles of the universe. What makes you think that there are fundamental principles at all, or that such principles won’t change?  All that is left to science is figuring out how to make stuff.  Everything else is storytelling, with the intent of covering up unproductive employment.

Similarly, if there isn’t a God who generated such abstract concepts as beauty, truth, goodness, agency, and happiness, then those concepts are entirely flexible, and they can change from era to era, and place to place.  Furthermore, there’s no real reason to think that they exist at all, or are worth any effort to achieve.  All that remains is careful defining of terms, so that they can be used cogently in sentences.  You have to know exactly what sort of wind you are sewing.

And Ethics?  The answer to every ethical assertion is always “says who?”  And if the reply to that isn’t “God,” then the next reply is always, “Try and make me.”  Trying to make people do things is the bread of politics.

There’s more than one way  that Jesus Christ holds the universe together.

Good Fashion, Good Business, Bad Science

First, an excellent video about bikinis and modesty:

I am 100% in favor of this lady’s designs and business.

Second, a rant on bad logic in science:

She sites a study that somebody did somewhere that indicated that men, when confronted with a woman in a bikini, lose the ability to think clearly. That should strike you as the sort of thing that doesn’t need a scientific study or a bunch of electrodes taped to a guy’s head, but please remember that people in lab coats need jobs too. What bothers me is that, instead of observing that a woman in a state of undress undermines a man’s capacity for abstract thought, lowers his communication skills, and increases his urges for physical activities, the brilliant scientists concluded that the parts of male brain that became active were those most associated with mechanical tools and that therefore men view women in bikinis as “objects.”

I find myself at something of a loss to describe how poor that logical reasoning is. Working backward, a tool is something more specific and more valuable to a person than a generic “object.” You would think that the logical conclusion would have been that, if a bikini makes a man’s brain activate its tool-oriented sections, he must think of the bikini clad woman as a tool. Or, if that conclusion were unsatisfactory, they might have reached the conclusion that the human brain is too complex to have large sections dedicated to “tools” and “objects” and gone looking for a more justifiable hypothesis.

Beyond that, you can’t escape the impression that this study was attempting to prove that male psychology itself is dangerous to women, that a man who sees a female belly button is unavoidably geared up for assault, that any decent man really ought to avoid seeing any belly buttons ever. At which point, you have to ask the question, “is there no appropriate time and place for a man to look on a woman?” Oh, yes. Marriage.

Well, let’s go do a study on happily married men, and see which parts of their brain light up when looking at their own provocatively dressed wives. If the system works smoothly, you might hope the sight undermines his capacity for abstract thought, lowers his communication skills, and increases his urges for physical activities. At which point you can ask the wife, who knows him best, if in this state he is thinking of her more as an object, or a tool.

Billion Year Old Water Bottle

What always gets me about stories like this is, how do they know? First, how do they know they water has been isolated? Did they crawl the cavern and test for leaks? Secondly, how do they know it’s been a billion years?

The other thing that gets me is that those are legitimate science questions. Shouldn’t science writing cover the sciency parts?

HT: Pseudopolymath

Something missing

A Classical Education designer talks about the classical approach to math and science.  It seems like he’s missing something, though, because his theories on teaching it better sound an awful lot like what I’ve heard about the Common Core Curriculum – prioritizing the idea over the execution. I think it’s because he forgets the magic word – Trivium!

Or it may just be that he’s forgetting that most of science is actually history, the same way that most of music composition is actually piano practice.