Thursday, July 25, 2013

Actually Reducing Abortion Rates

I sort of sympathize with anti-abortion feelings. 

I don't ultimately agree with that point of view, because to me abortion is an issue of body autonomy for the woman above all other considerations. The same bodily autonomy all adults have that protects us from being forced to donate kidneys, bone marrow, liver sections, etc., not even to save a life. Therefore I think no one should be empowered to force any woman to get or remain pregnant against her will, ever. 

Still, I sincerely understand the moral queasiness abortion invokes. And as with anti-abortion people, I and most other pro-choice people would like to reduce abortion rates too. However it is very important to me that such efforts be genuinely effective, be based on solid information, and cause the fewest possible harmful side effects.

Fortunately, we don't have to cast about in the dark, stumbling for effective strategies. We already have plenty of verifiable evidence from actual policies and rigorous studies. Sensible plans to reduce abortion should be built around: comprehensive sex education; free and universally available contraception; excellent pregnancy and child development assistance; and though it might seem counter intuitive, legal and available abortion.

Countries and communities that utilize those policies have drastically lower abortion rates than those that don't. It isn't magic or wishful thinking. Those strategies are by far the most effective at reducing abortion and do so without needlessly endangering women's lives or health. So I implore those who strongly oppose abortion to please endorse evidence based solutions and help implement them. If you can spare a few minutes, I highly recommend the essay "How I Lost Faith in the Pro-Life Movement" by Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

More Faith vs Trust

I've written about this before, but it bears repeating because too often I've encountered bad arguments that conflate trust with faith in order to sow confusion.

 Faith and trust aren't the same thing. Yes, evidence based reason like science does require some trust, but that does not open the door for faith or justify a false equivocation between faith/trust and science/religion. Unlike faith, trust is always conditional and provisional; strengthened or weakened by the evidence. By way of example, I don't have faith that the sun will appear to rise tomorrow in the east. I trust that it will rise and that trust has been earned by countless examples and very well understood scientific explanations. Should I be presented with compelling reasons to change my expectation of the sun rising, then I will. See? Conditional, provisional, and evidence based. Not faith.

There are some basic assumptions about the universe utilized by science and they aren't faith either. These axioms are kept as few and as simple as possible: the universe exists and it can be understood. I provisionally accept those. Even if I am actually a program in a vast and unfathomably complex computer system, there is no reason to alter those starting axioms, as the universe is still apparent and can still be understood. Moreover there is no evidence whatsoever that those axioms are false or in violation of Occam's Razor, although adding unwarranted supernatural explanations would be.

Once we start adding the unnecessary, unfounded, or unsupported then there is no end to it. Without sticking with naturalism and science as much as possible, then any ludicrous idea is just as plausible as any other. In other words, if the Christian god then why not Zeus, why not Xenu, why not the Flying Spagetti Monster? No, no thank you to all of those. I'm content with evidence based reason. I'm content with a scientific mindset. I'm content to reserve my beliefs for those that are best supported -- adjusting those views as scientists expand human knowledge. I'm content to live this tiny, insignificant life; to love and learn and be compassionate; and then one day to die and cease to exist anymore.

Incompatible Mindsets

Science and faith. These are two different mindsets. So different that they are fundamentally incompatible.

The methodology of science is based on careful analysis of verifiable observation. Scientists subject their own ideas to repeated checks to uncover flaws and expose their own errors. Scientists even invite their peers to go through their work to find such mistakes, which is potentially humiliating but necessary to avoid the effects of enthusiasm for an idea overstepping what is warranted by the evidence.

Faith on the other hand is defined by very different characteristics. Faith doesn't require evidence or observation. Faith is considered to be strongest in the absence of proof. In fact, faith can require turning away from evidence. Faith is choosing to believe based on what is wanted to be true, not on what is or is not actually observed.

Science simply cannot incorporate such wishful thinking, because the scientific method requires evidence and rationality at every step. It is a way of analyzing reality wholly dependent on evidence based reason. Such observation of the natural universe cannot incorporate faith directly nor substitute faith for any of its processes and remain intellectually honest.

Now that isn't to say that a productive, respected scientist cannot also have faith in the supernatural. Dr. Ken Miller is a practicing Catholic. He is also a well respected biologist and outspoken opponent of intelligent design creationism. I have great respect for Dr. Miller and other scientists like him. I even respect their right to believe in unfounded, supernatural, faith driven ideologies. But any such scientist must take pains to set aside religious faith when doing science, switching from one mode of thinking to another in order to consider only the naturalistic evidence. They cannot substitute a faith-based explanation no matter how tempting.

History shows us that sometimes even great scientists fail in that. But what we remember most aren't their scientific failures, but their successes. The great work of long dead natural philosophers and astronomers is valued for providing insights into understanding the universe in measurable, verifiable ways. Those insights were gained through vigilant observation under the care of brilliant, rational minds. Or at least they remained rational about their now famous research, even if in other ways their minds were polluted by nonsense, like Newton and his alchemy.

I want to emphasize that I'm not suggesting that scientists must be atheists. I know that some scientists will learn about the natural world and chose to interpret the meaning of that through their religious faith. But that is an additional, personal conviction of theirs that isn't directly warranted by the evidence. As such it fails to withstand Occam's Razor, isn't part of their scientific work, and represents a necessary switch from one type of thinking to another – because the mindsets of faith and of science are incompatible ways of determining what to believe about reality.