[Paleopsych] Alternet: Weird Science on the Religious Right
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Mon Aug 15 01:22:03 UTC 2005
Weird Science on the Religious Right
By Stan Cox, AlterNet. Posted August 11, 2005.
Seven of the greatest hits (or misses) of conservative Christian
'science' show just how little fact goes into these beliefs, and how
much damage they can cause.
"God said it. I believe it. That settles it." This familiar bumper
sticker slogan appears to sum up the Religious Right's decision-making
process on matters of heated public debate.
But when policies involving human biology and behavior are being
hammered out, faith alone isn't always sufficient to win over voters and
decision-makers. At such times, a bit of scientific evidence comes in
handy, and some of the Religious Right's operatives aren't too choosy
about where they get it.
Consider the following seven claims, the quality of the scientific
evidence that supports them and the potential consequences, were they to
be widely accepted:
"Condoms are full of holes"
That's according to Concerned Women For America and many other
right-wing groups. How big are those holes? Big enough that an HIV
particle or even a sperm can easily wander through, if you believe this
scary diagram from abortionfacts.com:
Organizations that advertise gaping holes of 5 microns (.0002 inch) or
more in condoms often turn out to be misapplying data from a 1993 paper
by scientist C.M. Roland. Possibly confused by the title of the journal
in which Roland published his work -- Rubber World -- they fail to note
that his experiments were done with latex gloves, not condoms.
On the other hand, a 1998 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report
noted that when 1-micron holes were intentionally drilled in condom
latex, a sensitive test could detect them, but the same test could find
no holes in undrilled condoms. That indicated that condoms have no holes
bigger than 1 micron, unless researchers poke the holes themselves. And
in a 50-micron-thick condom, even a 1-micron-wide hole is really a
narrow tunnel that would have little chance of reaching through the
entire thickness, let alone allowing HIV particles through.
The overall conclusion of the FDA study: "All the latex films
representing a wide range of formulations and ages were effective
barriers to transmission of the small virus. Thus, permeation through
quite thin, stretched samples with this very sensitive test was not
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fact sheet
on condoms states that "Laboratory studies have demonstrated that latex
condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size
of STD pathogens." And, of course, a far larger sperm cell has no chance
That information is buried in the midst of a previously informative CDC
document that was largely gutted under the Bush Administration. While
noting, correctly, that condoms are not 100 percent effective, the
current fact sheet no longer contains information on proper use of
Condom failure is actually overwhelmingly due to mistakes or accidents
during their use, not manufacture or testing, so the fact sheet now put
out by the CDC, and influenced by the Religious Right, may be making
unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection more likely, not less so.
A footnote: Concerned Women for America's "full of holes" claim was
based on a press release by the National Physicians Center for Family
Resources. That obscure group came under fire this summer in Congress
for the Bush administration's 4Parents.gov website, which it produced.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. and 145 nongovernmental organizations
condemned the site for misleading teenagers about condoms and other
"Phonics is the only effective way to teach reading"
Have you ever wondered why right-wing Christian parents and educators
are so intent on promoting phonics (a method of teaching reading that
stresses basic symbol-sound relationships) and so abhor "whole language"
learning (in which children learn words by reading them in context)?
The answer you'll get from phonics advocates is simply that it works, as
indicated by better test scores (at least when the tests include
questions on phonics!). But there appears to be consensus among
researchers outside the Religious Right that the most effective approach
is a broad, integrated one that incorporates some phonics training and a
lot of reading.
The most pertinent research I've seen on the Christian phonics fixation
(by the way, why do those last two words begin with different letters?)
was done by Mark Thogmartin. Here are excerpts of some of the reasons he
heard from phonics enthusiasts, as he listed them in a 1997 issue of
Home Education magazine:
* "More holistic approaches to reading instruction are more
child-centered and seem to assert the inherent goodness of the child,
which is opposed to the basic Christian doctrine of a sinful nature
derived from the fall of Adam."
* "A phonics approach to reading instruction, with its usual
dependence on drill and rote memorization, is more compatible with the
rigidly disciplined environment of most Christian schools."
* "Often, theorists who believe in a more holistic, meaning-centered
reading instruction philosophy have ... suggested that a child's ability
to extract the meaning from print is the primary objective of reading
any passage. This may sound almost blasphemous to Christians who believe
in the literal, verbal inspiration of scripture."
Probably the chief reason for the Christian Rights's crusade against
whole-language learning is a concern about its association throughout
the 20th century with the left side of the U.S. political spectrum.
Indeed, conservative Christian writer Samuel Blumenfeld has suggested,
according to Thogmartin, that whole-language-style methodology "was
initiated as a deliberate attempt by socialists to lower the literacy
rates in America. An illiterate society would be more dependent on the
'Big Brother' socialist government, making a socialist takeover much
"Abortion causes breast cancer"
The heavily publicized "ABC Hypothesis" -- that having an abortion
increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer -- is not supported
by valid research. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH),
it is "well established" that "induced abortion is not associated with
an increase in breast cancer risk."
But ABC proponents such as Karen Malec, president of the Coalition on
Abortion/Breast Cancer, claim that the NIH is party to a coverup, and
that in fact "abortion causes breast cancer." To support that assertion,
they often cite research in which women suffering from breast cancer, as
well as women who are cancer-free, are asked whether they have ever had
But in such situations, say ABC's critics, healthy women are less likely
to be forthcoming about past abortions than are those who are currently
undergoing treatment for a grave illness. Studies that avoid that bias
by relying wholly on medical records have found no link.
Many environmental and genetic factors interact throughout a woman's
life to push or pull her down a road either toward or away from breast
cancer. No one factor can be said to "cause" the disease -- certainly
not one like abortion, for which even a valid statistical association
cannot be detected.
In an attempt to seal her argument, Malec often claims that abortion
"causes" breast cancer through the simple mechanism of preventing
childbirth. Perhaps inadvertently shedding some light on her underlying
motivations, she has written that "experts universally agree that having
a child provides a woman with a natural protection against breast cancer
and that it is healthier for a married woman not to postpone her first
"Remote prayer cures disease"
There could well be all sorts of "mind-body" mechanisms through which
prayer in the presence of a patient, or by the patient herself, might
provide medical benefits. But what if so-called "remote intercessory
prayer" -- that is, praying for a far-away patient without that
patient's knowledge -- could be proven to produce medically detectable
results? That would really be something, wouldn't it?
Amazingly, in 2001, a paper demonstrating the effectiveness of remote
prayer turned up in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. In that study,
scientists at Columbia University showed that by saying appropriate
prayers, groups of people in the US, Australia, and Canada apparently
increased the pregnancy rate in women who had undergone in vitro
fertilization in Korea.
But before long, critics led by Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor of
obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Irvine,
showed that the study was suspiciously designed and statistically
flawed. Then it came to light that one of the paper's three authors,
Daniel Wirth, lacked a medical degree but did sport an impressive
A year after the paper was published, Wirth, a faith-healing con man,
was indicted for stealing $3.4 million in income and property through
the use of false identities. He pled guilty to conspiracy charges in May
2004. (The charges were unconnected to the prayer study).
In October 2004, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a
correction stating that another of the paper's authors, Rogerio A. Lobo,
had requested that his name be removed from the paper. An investigation
by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had found that Lobo
first learned of the study six to 12 months after its completion.
To date, no statistically significant evidence of successful remote
intercessory prayer has been published.
Private prayer has no obvious implications for government policy, unless
research on the subject is paid for by taxpayers. And -- you guessed it
-- that has indeed happened. The National Institutes for Health, through
its National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has
funded research on remote intercessory prayer at least twice since 1992.
"Emergency contraception is a health hazard"
The so-called "morning-after pill" -- a single tablet containing
hormones similar to those in birth control pills but in a larger dose --
prevents pregnancy by blocking fertilization or implantation of the egg.
Side effects may include some flu-like symptoms, which appear to be less
severe than common side effects of early pregnancy, and of shorter
David Reardon, Director of the anti-abortion Elliot Institute, offers
this retort to FDA researchers who have declared the pill safe:
"Actually, what they really mean by 'safe' is simply that women aren't
dropping down dead." Like other critics of emergency contraception on
the Religious Right, unencumbered by any scientific evidence, he
conjures up dark images of devastating long-term health risks from
taking the pill.
What has Christian extremists up in arms about emergency contraception
is that it may prevent implantation and development of an already
fertilized egg, which they regard as the death of a human being. That
belief, of course, has long been the subject of philosophical debate.
Exaggerating health hazards is simply a way of doing an end run on the
philosophical question and getting the pill's use restricted or banned
In 2004, the FDA refused to permit over-the-counter sales of Barr
Laboratories' "Plan B" emergency contraception product. In so doing, the
agency overruled its own scientific advisory panel, which had
recommended that such sales be allowed. In May 2005, The Nation and the
Washington Post quoted one conservative evangelical member of the
advisory panel, W. David Hager, as he boasted to an Asbury College
congregation -- in a videotaped sermon -- of his role in getting Plan B
"After two days of hearings, the committees voted to approve this
over-the-counter sale by 23 to 4. I was asked to write a minority
opinion that was sent to the commissioner of the FDA. For only the
second time in five decades, the FDA did not abide by its advisory
committee opinion, and the measure was rejected. Now the opinion I wrote
was not from an evangelical Christian perspective. ... But I argued it
from a scientific perspective, and God took that information, and He
used it through this minority report to influence the decision."
He added, "Once again, what Satan meant for evil, God turned into good."
The FDA is revisiting the question of over-the-counter sales of Plan B
and will issue a ruling by the end of this month.
"Terri Schiavo could have gotten better"
When Schiavo's autopsy was released publicly on June 15, 2005, it
showed, in the words of the district medical examiner, that her brain
damage "was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would
have regenerated the massive loss of neurons."
The report did not state that Schiavo was in a "permanent vegetative
state" (PVS), because PVS is defined in clinical terms and not
demonstrated through autopsy. The Religious Right has latched onto the
report's silence on PVS, continuing to insist that, based on the
autopsy, "we really can't know how she died."
Pointing to the absence of a PVS diagnosis in the autopsy report, a
spokesperson for the organization Focus on the Family said that "People
are grasping at straws to justify the dehydration death of Terri
Of course, before Schiavo's death, clinical observation by medical
experts did confirm that she was in a permanent vegetative state from
which she could never recover. Evidence to the contrary, of course,
could have provided a compelling reason to continue life support
indefinitely. And for a while, hopes for restoration of Schiavo's
consciousness appeared to rest on one man: William Hammesfahr, M.D.
The Schiavo family selected the Clearwater, Fla. neurologist to testify
before Florida's Sixth Circuit Court in 2002 that his "vasodilation
therapy" could revive Schiavo. But the court order that followed was
scathing in its assessment of Hammesfahr's arguments:
It is clear that this therapy is not recognized in the medical
community ... and what undermines his credibility is that he did not
present to this court any evidence other than his generalized statements
as to the efficacy of his therapy on brain damaged individuals like
Terry Schiavo. He testified that he has treated about 50 patients in the
same or worse condition than Terry Schiavo since 1994 but he offered no
names, no case studies, no videos and no tests results to support his
claim that he had success in all but one of them.
The Court was also skeptical about Hammesfahr's claim to be a "Nobel
Prize nominee," and with good reason. He based the claim on nothing more
than a letter written on his behalf by Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Fla., who
is not eligible to make Nobel nominations.
"Humans are not descended from pre-human ancestors."
For a good story, give me that old-time creationism, with its
6,000-year-old Earth and big flood. But that's not an easy sell when
you're dealing with school boards and other government institutions. So
these days, the anti-evolution Right talks mostly about intelligent
Many proponents of ID -- which is creationism dressed up in a white lab
coat -- have accomodated scientific reality to some extent by admitting,
for example, that the Earth really is 4.5 billion years old or that
natural selection can occur within certain strict limits. However, they
are unwavering in their insistence that individual species are the
products of custom design, not natural selection. And that applies
doubly to our own species.
As they labor to explain how humans were created -- while trying to
avoid being buried under a growing mountain of physical and genetic data
that demonstrates our primate ancestry -- ID thinkers have exhibited
some impressive creativity of their own. Among their efforts to
reconcile the intelligent design of humans with real science, the award
for Most Imaginative goes to Jonathan Wells.
A Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and author of the
creationist classic Icons of Evolution (2000), Wells wrote the following
as part of a paper he presented to the International Conference on the
Unity of the Sciences, a forum established by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's
Some people believe that the first human beings were created fully
grown. But ... a creature that begins life without passing through birth
and childhood would be so unlike us that we could not regard it as truly
human, regardless of how great the superficial resemblance. And because
human babies are totally dependent on other creatures for their survival
during early development, animals capable of raising the first human
babies must have been a necessary part of the original plan.
Human babies need milk to survive and grow, so mammals had to exist
before humans appeared. And not just any mammal. The first human baby
presumably had to be nurtured by a creature very much like itself -- a
humanlike primate. This creature, in turn, could only have been nurtured
by a creature intermediate in some respects between it and a more
primitive mammal. In other words, a plan for the emergence of human
beings must have included something like the succession of prehistoric
forms we find in the fossil record.
Intelligent Design is an attempt to squeeze a creation story -- any
creation story, whether it features Adam and Eve or motherly monkeys --
through cracks in the First Amendment and into public classrooms. This
process is at various stages of completion in Kansas, Ohio,
Pennsylvania, and other states. And President Bush himself recently
endorsed the teaching of ID.
Well, you have to admit that when the Religious Right and its innovative
researchers get involved, science is anything but dry and dull.
But when society is trying to come to a collective decision on
science-related issues that can have profound consequences for millions
of people, we need something more substantial than gripping fiction and
Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas.
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