Scientism is Not Only Self-Refuting, but Dangerous

Part Three

Scientism is not merely wrong, but dangerous. This is the claim I want to make to conclude our series on scientism. It probably seems like an aggressive claim; perhaps it is. But it’s also right there in the subtitle of JP Moreland’s book: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.

Power outlet on fire.

I started this series by explaining why scientism is self-refuting. Whether someone believes in strong scientism or weak scientism, their belief is logically incoherent. If scientism is true, then the non-scientific foundations on which scientism (and science!) rests would be null and void. If scientism were true, it would prove that scientism couldn’t be true; it’s a logical contradiction and has no merit as a system of thought.

I then covered the ways in which scientism influences how everyone talks about abortion. Both pro-life and pro-choice people often act like science is the thing with all the answers, but, in reality, science can only get us so far. Some scientific facts, like those from embryology, give us relevant information, but we have to use that information in non-scientific ways to come to a reasoned conclusion about abortion.

If you’ve gotten this far, you may wonder how scientism still exists and why it continues not only to survive but thrive in the public sphere. My answer is simple: scientism is a means of power for some things against other things. It is a convenient weapon in favor of moral relativism against absolute moral truths and those who claim them. Every meaningful defense of human rights must rest on moral truth, so denying moral truth must lead to an eradication of grounds for human rights. Scientism is not bad just because it is incorrect or unhelpful, but because it is a danger to humanity.

The Limitations of Science in the Abortion Debate: Why You Need Philosophy

Part Two

One of our not-so-secret missions at ERI is to help pro-life advocates to think well about philosophy as it relates to the abortion debate. The problem with scientism is it says that philosophy isn’t a valid way to reach truth or discover facts. According to this position, our philosophical case for the unborn doesn’t matter, because only science really matters.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes.

Book with glasses.

Now, if scientism was true, we would have to drop our strong philosophical arguments and just talk about biology. Biology and embryology can be helpful in articulating the pro-life position, but we don’t think they can get you all the way there. Just knowing that the fetus is human doesn’t tell us how to think about it. But scientism is false—more than that, it’s self-defeating, as I showed in the first article in this series.

So, How Far Can Science Get Us?

This is important, so to say it again: scientism does not equal science. Scientism says that arguments don’t matter, only bare scientific facts. Science stems from philosophical foundations. It answers questions about the world while using basic rules of logic to do so. This makes it a second thing, not a first thing, but scientism pretends that science is first and only. As C.S. Lewis writes:

“You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”

If we pursue science as first (scientism), then we lose science in its proper place.

And science in its proper place gives us good and valuable facts which can support various arguments in the abortion debate. We cannot say, with the justices playing make-believe about biology in Roe, that we don’t know when life begins. 96 percent of biologists (not just embryologists, mind you) agree in acknowledging that life begins at conception.

The study of embryology expands on this consensus by telling us what happens at and after conception. An individual human being develops from a single-celled organism into a recognizable baby, maintaining biological integrity and continuity the entire way. We can detect early cardiac activity; we can observe the differentiation of stem cells; we can see movement and interaction. And science adds new discoveries, such as the likely pain threshold for prenatal humans recently being pushed back from 25 weeks to 12 weeks.

Scientism: the Self-Refuting Argument that has Contaminated Abortion Dialogue

Part One

Scientism is the belief that truth, insofar as it exists, is only (or best) discovered by using the scientific method. In other words, scientism says that fields like biology, chemistry, and physics are superior ways (or the only ways) of knowing what is true and that philosophy or theology can only be matters of opinion, rather than ways to discover the reality around us. This belief isn’t often named, but it shows up everywhere. Public media and private conversations about all sorts of topics make use of this worldview by stealth.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.
Nuclear Energy Waste

Science vs. Scientism

Despite “science” being in the name, scientism is actually not a doctrine of science. Rather it is a philosophical position that distorts science by undermining its very foundation.

We want to help you confront this false ideology when it appears in conversations about abortion and other important issues. We’re indebted to Dr. J.P. Moreland’s work on this topic, Scientism and Secularism, and we’ll just use page numbers to reference his book (which you can buy on Amazon) throughout this series of posts. Moreland is a professor at Biola University with a Ph.D. in philosophy, but also majored in chemistry and was awarded a fellowship for Ph.D. study in nuclear chemistry before choosing philosophy instead. In other words, he knows a thing or two about both science and philosophy.

Arguing From Equality: The Personhood of Human Embryos

When I teach pro-life apologetics, I usually explain that there are two primary disagreements between the pro-life side and the pro-choice side and then a bunch of distracting arguments that are about other issues that do not address abortion ethics. Most pro-life people are familiar with the first primary disagreement. These are pro-choice arguments that deny the personhood of the unborn child. In other words, they say that the human embryo doesn’t have the same equal rights as people. These arguments about personhood definitions largely dominate the philosophical literature on abortion. People argue about what constitutes a person and then explain how the human embryo does or does not qualify. Notice that this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Science tells us what is killed during abortion: an embryo or fetus that is living, whole, and human. Philosophy tells us whether or not that human embryo’s life is valuable.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes.

Lady Justice Statue

To watch a video version of this article, click here.

The second disagreement in the abortion debate is centered around bodily rights; in other words, the slogan that we have all heard before: “My body, my choice.” This argument is different from the first disagreement about personhood because rather than denying that abortion kills a person, it addresses whether or not the killing can be justified by the woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy. In this article, I am going to make an argument which only addresses the first philosophical disagreement about whether or not the life of a human embryo is valuable and deserves the same protection from violence as you and I. For more information about understanding and responding to the second disagreement see this archive of all our videos and articles on the subject.

Do You Believe in Equal Rights?

Before I make a claim about the moral status of a human embryo, I want to first talk about rights more generally. I think that rights should be given to all people equally. This is going to be really important to my argument so if you don’t believe in equality or you don’t think equality is fundamentally important, then that’s one reason we will disagree, but I have found most people I talk with about this subject agree that equal rights are super important. I think when whenever a group of people’s rights are not being protected then serious injustice is taking place. For this topic, I will be focusing on people’s right to life.

Let’s call anyone who has a right to life a member of the “Equal Right to Life Community.” Let’s imagine that all those people are in a big room together. If you’re not someone or something with an equal right to life, then you can’t get into the room because you don’t belong in that community. Another way to talk about this community is to say that everyone in the room is a person who has serious moral status. Those terms are often used interchangeably when we talk about this kind of question.

Who Do You Think Deserves Equal Rights?

Who is in the room and who is left outside? I am going to look at some obvious examples to give you a better idea of how I think about the community and I want you to consider if you agree with my sorting process or not and why. I think it is obvious that you who are reading this right now and I are both in the community. Humans of every race, ethnicity, and gender are in the community. People in wheelchairs are in the community. Gay people, straight people, poor people, rich people, religious people, and atheists all have the same right to life. Olympic athletes are in the community and so are those who can’t run a mile in under 15 minutes. Both educated and illiterate people are in the community. I think the most intelligent among us and those with developmental delays should have an equal right to life. I think those celebrating their 100th birthday, teenagers, toddlers, and newborn babies are all in the community. I even think Canadians are in the community. All of these people have an equal right to life and should be protected from violence equally, despite the many differences they have, whether in intellect, physical abilities, or an aspect of their identity.

Is Abortion 14 Times Safer Than Childbirth?

Pregnancy and childbirth are not easy. Besides the effects on the mother’s body, her career plans, her relationships, and her identity, there are also health factors to consider. In a small minority of cases, pregnancy-related complications directly threaten the mother’s life. Many abortion-choice advocates are well aware of that danger. Some even claim that abortion is safer than childbirth, up to 14 times safer.[1] Where do they get this idea? Are they right? Is abortion 14 times safer than childbirth?

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes.

It’s a pretty radical claim to say that abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth. It’s so radical, there’s only one source that claims they can prove it. It’s a journal article from abortion-choice researchers Elizabeth Raymond and David Grimes (hereafter, “RG study”).

This article has become one of the most popular citations regarding “safe abortion.” It’s easy to read (five pages), easy to access (free online), it’s written by one of the biggest names in the pro-choice lobby (David Grimes), and it cites recognized resources (CDC and Guttmacher). Whenever people say, “Abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth” they are referencing the RG study (like Reuters, USNews, FoxNews, DailyKos, Time, Reddit, Public Radio, Huffington Post, Relias Media, and Slate).

There is a reason, however, why no other study claims to demonstrate that this “14 times safer” claim. They can’t reproduce the results, so no other study has been able to corroborate that enormous claim. The RG study might be the most famous, and most widely cited paper on the subject, but despite its popularity, it’s pretty much useless.

Now I know people on the internet can exaggerate things, but I’m picking my words carefully here. The RG study has bad methodology and weak evidence, it’s poorly researched and argued, it doesn’t support its conclusion, and it isn’t even titled correctly.

This paper is pretty much useless because it’s irreparably flawed. But even in the wider world of abortion statistics and medical research, beyond just the RG study, there are major limitations in data collection making it virtually impossible to say honestly, that abortion is demonstrably safer than childbirth.

In this article, I’ll begin by looking at the shortcomings of the RG study in more detail. Then, I’ll examine the broader trends that undermine our ability to draw sweeping conclusions about the relative safety of abortion. Finally, I’ll talk about how this should affect pro-life policies and conversations.