Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Science and politics

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, december 23, 2009

Unlike the simplified models of theory, reality is a complex tangle, a web whose conforming elements are connected to one another in complex and multiple ways.

Science is the discipline that helps understand such connections. It produces models that, even though ideal, are reliable, and therefore help us to make appropriate decisions. Politics, on the other hand, is the art of taking advantage of these connections, or building the ones that are lacking, to make that things happen in a society ("the art of the possible", chancellor von Bismarck is said to have called it).

Scientific knowledge is often the impulse and basis for constructing political action. But it is not enough: political ability is needed to make the web strong enough.

Sometimes this can be achieved, sometimes not. In Copenhagen it was not, even though there is solid scientific data and consensus about what to do. The forces opposing the agreement -the economical costs of reconverting the industries of powerful countries; the unavoidable political costs linked to them– prevented it from happening.

On the other hand, in Mexico city, political ability, supported on modern knowledge about human beings and their sexuality, allowed homosexual marriage to be approved, and without the unfair lock –and implicit homophobic argument– that did not allow adoption!

But science and politics are processes: they never stop. Sooner or later, the policies necessary to fight climate change will have to be agreed upon. Unless, of course, we discover something new: an unexpected piece of good news that would also have to be based in science.

In matters of human, sexual and reproductive rights, the advances, though slow, are not stopping. Autopsies were prohibited, by religious reasons, for centuries, until the Renaissance. Blacks and women, considered as inferiors, could not vote until the middle of last century. In vitro fertilisation caused a hot debate, also because of religious prejudice; the fact that the expression "test-tube baby" sounds obsolete nowadays is proof that societies advance and assimilate changes that are beneficial for them.

Until recently, homosexuality was legally punished. Today, the full equality of couples, sexual orientation notwhitstanding, is recognized in the law. In the near future, other items are pending: the right to abortion, euthanasia, research with stem cells. And furthermore, a proposal for "animal rights" for the great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimps).

In a secular state, decisions must be based in reliable knowledge, and taken to widen, not to suppress, the rights of everybody. Science helps politics build new links so that the necessary changes in the complex social web can be built and sustained. Congratulations…! and Merry Christmas.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

To receive Science for pleasure weekly
in your email, subscribe here!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Abortion and fallacies

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, december 2nd, 2009

The decriminalization of abortion (or its penalization, in this poor country that, as it takes a step forward, always takes another backwards) is not a scientific issue, but a social and political one.

And also an ethical problem, of course… just like all social and political issues. But unlike what happened in the middle ages, when it was believed that the only valid ethical criteria were those dictated by religion, today, in the 21st century, we have scientific knowledge as a very important guide to norm the decisions we take as a society.

That's why fallacies such as "life begins at conception" cannot be allowed to pass for arguments when used by political parties, such as PRI, PAN, even PRD, and of course, the catholic hierarchy, have been doing in Mexico, in order to approve laws that will limit women's right to decide over their body, thus violating their human rights.

To refute this is so easy that its embarrassing: life does not begin at conception, because the sperm and ovum, the cells whose union gives origin to the zygote or fertilized egg (which is presented by these people as "potentially" human), are already alive before conception. If we take life as an absolute value, we should consider night ejaculations and menstruation as instances of assassination… "potentially".

A nice try to avoid this objection is to define that which starts with fertilization as human life. Again, false: sperm and ovule are as human as a zygote. The one thing that characterizes a zygote or an embryo as "human" during its first developmental stages is its genetic information… which is also present in the cells that give origin to it. (And even so, if the church wanted to argue that the essence of the human being reduces to its genes, they'd be getting into a conceptual mess worse than the one they started with!.)

A human being does not suddenly appear: it develops. Before the 12th week, it does not have a nerve system that can support functions such as perception and consciousness, without which we cannot speak of a "person". (For the same reason, someone with irreversible brain damage is not considered "alive" anymore, although its heart and lungs may be still functioning.)

As stated yesterday by Roberto Blancarte in Milenio Diario, what the religious hierarchy is achieving, with the complicity of political parties, is to "confessionalize politics, weaken secular State, and introduce catholic norms in legislation and public policies". It is evident: the criminalization of abortion is unjust and dishonest. Science and human rights give us enough arguments to oppose it. Otherwise, the price will still be paid by our women, and our society as a whole.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

To receive Science for pleasure weekly
in your email, subscribe here!