"The Impact of 'Scientific Misinformation' on Other Fields: Philosophy, Theology, Biomedical Ethics, Public Policy"

Dianne N. Irving
Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Bioethics
Department of Philosophy, DeSales School of Theology,
Washington, D.C.
Copyright April 1993
[Accountability in Research, April 1993, 2(4):243-272]
Reproduced with Permission

[Note: This article is copyrighted, and therefore must be referenced completely when quoting from it. See 2006 Irving review of the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryological Development, at: See "Carnegie StagesÓ at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_123carnegiestages1.html.]

The Impact of "Scientific Misinformation" on Other Fields: Philosophy, Theology, Biomedical Ethics, Public Policy


"Scientific misinformation" or inaccuracies are problematic within the field of science itself. However, perhaps few scientists are aware of or concerned about the possible impact which scientific misinformation apparently has on several other seemingly unrelated fields - e.g., philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics, and public policy. To demonstrate such an influence, I will take only one issue currently debated in these other fields -i.e., the biological "marker events of human personhood" during human embryogenesis, and trace the impact that seemingly contradictory scientific claims have had on the theoretical structures and practical conclusions of the several interrelated fields. Concern is expressed about the serious need for more accurate scientific input into these discussions and issues, and for scientists to help sort out which scientific data and theories are actually the most accurate and scientifically acceptable.

Keywords: Scientific misinformation, philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics, personhood, public policy, professional expertise.

Introduction *

To paraphrase an old adage, "A small error in the beginning leads to a multitude of errors in the end" (Aristotle, De Coelo, in McKeon, 1941). Similarly, at times the use of scientific information, e.g., scientific data or theories, can dramatically impact other fields seemingly far removed from the scientific community itself. Scholars and public policy developers from innumerable fields rely on the accuracy and objectivity of the information developed within and passed on by that scientific community. Today more than ever, scientific "facts" are often the starting point for or the major premise in the development of theories and arguments in fields other than science itself.

When such scientific information is incorrect, highly questionable, or misapplied even within the field of science, then it becomes problematic, i.e., scientific "misinformation" instead, expanding inaccuracies, becoming imbedded within the theoretical structures of those other fields, and possibly misguiding public policy officials who rely on scientific experts.

The aim of this paper is to suggest to the scientific community the theoretical and practical consequences of such scientific misinformation on the fields of philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics and public policy.

The method will be to take only one major current issue which has its source in scientific data and argumentation, and trace the impact of that scientific "misinformation" on those other fields. To narrow the issue I will trace scientific misinformation concerning human embryogenesis - specifically, exactly when, during human embryogenesis, is there present a human being or a human person?

I want to emphasize that this paper is not about describing methods of data auditing (although it would support the need for such important procedures). Nor is it about proving or disproving when fetal "personhood" takes place. That issue has already been discussed at great length in the references provided. Rather, regardless of one's own position on fetal personhood, the aim of this paper is to identify the science actually used in these arguments, consider the apparent contradiction of this science with that stated by other scientists, and trace the impact of the science actually used on the theories of other fields.

In addition, since the philosophy and the science used in the arguments of fetal "personhood" are often complexly intertwined, I will resort at times to clarifying at least some general philosophical concepts in order to make the scientific problems inherent in these arguments coherent. Because most of the arguments are in fact drawn from writers who cross interdisciplinary lines, the categories of "philosophy", "theology", "biomedical ethics" and "public policy" can only be roughly drawn. The point is to see how scientific data and arguments stated by scientists find their way into current arguments in those others fields.

Impact on Other Fields:

I. Philosophy/Theology/Biomedical Ethics: "Early" Embryonic and Fetal Development

The field of philosophy is difficult to define. Unlike science or mathematics, there is no general agreement on what its subject matter is, or on its methodology. It is agreed - at least by those philosophers who have studied the whole history of philosophy - that there are many different schools of philosophy, each characterized by certain different basic presuppositions and explanations of the world. The philosophy of science is no exception. As in all other sub-fields of philosophy, the philosophy of science embraces all of the very different and often contradictory schools of thought, e.g., monism, dualism, rationalism, empiricism, scholasticism and realism. Even these very terms are defined differently by different schools. There is, then, no such thing as a "neutral" philosophy, a "neutral" ethics", or even a "neutral" logic.

For most realistic schools of philosophy, to which this writer subscribes, it is critical to obtain the most accurate scientific data and theories about the physical world as is possible, as these scientific facts and theories are the starting points for all other philosophical endeavors. There are many important technical philosophical terms whose definitions are derived from and refined by scientific data - even for example, the seemingly vague philosophical term "being". For present purposes, a "being", generally speaking, is a subsistent substance of a particular kind whose nature determines its kind, and causes certain specific kinds of functions and activities. There are many different natures or kinds of beings, and thus many different specific kinds of functions and activities. For example, fish can swim but trees cannot; frogs produce frog enzymes and proteins, but tomato plants or giraffes cannot. A being also sustains typical secondary or accidental modifications. For example, a mushroom is a particular kind of plant-being; and it can be modified accidentally by being white or black, small or large, edible or poisonous. Again, a horse is a certain kind of animal-being; and it can be modified accidentally by being of a solid color or spotted, roan or bay, short or tall. Mushrooms and horses are examples of substances or beings. White, black, edible, poisonous, spotted, roan and tall are examples of accidental modifications of those beings. Changes in accidental modifications do not change the nature or kind of being it already is. (E.g., an apple can change from green to red, but it is still an apple).

Not only do scientific observations of the world lead us to specific definitions of each of the many different natures or kinds of material beings in the world; they can also lead to analogous definitions of properties which are "common" to all beings whatsoever. All of these definitions should "match" as closely as possible that scientific data from which they were drawn - otherwise we are not theorizing about the real world at all (Irving, 1992). Obviously, if there is an error in the scientific observations or data, then our concepts about the real world, which are drawn from and represent to us those scientific observations, are in error as well. A realist's philosophical concepts and theories, then, must match the best and most accurate scientific data and theories about the real world.

Another general technical philosophical term whose definition is impacted by scientific data is the term "individual". Speaking generally an "individual" is that which is essentially unified, and one with, or the same as, itself. For example, a horse is an individual being; a herd of horses are many individual beings. In contrast to the "accidental" modifications above, "individuality" is such a "common" technical term defining an essential and non-accidental attribute of a being. That is, a being cannot be a being unless it is "one" being. Needless to say, if the definition of "being" is incorrect, the definitions of "human being" and "material being" are also incorrect - and the definitions of "ethics" and of "science" will be incorrect as well.

To the point, two other philosophical terms have recently been affected by the scientific evidence presented in the literature, i.e., the terms "human being" and "human person". Many articles have been written addressing the question of when during human embryogenesis is there present a human being? And is a human being the same as a human person - or does a human person come later in human embryogenesis than a human being?

For purposes of laying out how others have addressed the issue, and to provide several references to which one might turn to obtain a more detailed treatment of the arguments, some writers will use scientific information to argue that a human being is simultaneously a human person - they cannot be separated (Lejeune, 1989; Irving, 1991, 1992; Fisher, 1991; Ashley, 1987; Klubertanz, 1953; Carberry and Kmiec, 1992; Howsepian, 1992; Moraczewski, 1983; Barry, 1979; Daly, 1987; Werner, 1974; Wertheimer, 1971; Brody, 1978; Santamaria, 1982; Grisez, 1970; Iglesias, 1984; Quinn, 1984; Commonwealth of Australia, 1985; Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 1986; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987). Their arguments claim that functionally, genetically and biochemically it is clear that a new unique living individual human being, who simultaneously is a human person, is present immediately at fertilization. It is at that moment when substantial change has taken place. That is, when the "23" chromosomes of the human ovum and the "23" chromosomes of the human sperm have combined to form a human zygote with "46" chromosomes (generally the number and combination of the human species) then a change in natures has taken place. The nature of the sperm and the nature of the ovum have changed to the nature of the embryo - as one can determine scientifically by the differences in biochemical and biological functions and activities of the sperm, egg, and zygote. Certain realistic philosophical schools of thought, which always use the scientific facts as their starting points in conceptualizing the real world, are often evoked which seem to "match" this biological data. This data grounds the argument that from fertilization on there already exists an individual human being with the "potency" (or nature) to develop continuously through the later stages of human embryogenesis and adulthood. Thus embryological development - in contrast to fertilization - is identified as an example of accidental change, i.e., the nature does not change but the accidents do (Irving, 1991, 1992; Klubertanz, 1953).

"Potency" is a realist philosophical term used to designate an already existing nature of a particular kind of thing which already has the present capacity or power to direct the development of itself throughout its accidental developmental stages. In current discussions this term is constantly corrupted and construed to mean "potential" or "possibility", implying that the nature in question is not there yet, but might be there sometime in the future. For purposes of correctly understanding the realist argument on fetal personhood, it is critical that these three terms - "potency", "potential", and "possible" - are correctly defined, understood and not equated. A human being with a human nature or potency is already a human being with a human nature. It is not a "potential" human being somewhere down the line. And it is not a "possible" human being (e.g., the woman decides not to abort, or the IVF technician decides to implant it). As with accidental change, external circumstances do not change the very nature which is already possessed by a thing.

Unlike several other philosophical schools of thought, this realistic philosophical argument formally defines a human being as including human matter and human powers in that definition. It thus rejects any real split between a human being and a human person. A "person" is part and parcel of the whole complex, concrete human being - including the human body. "Rational attributes" are descriptive of only one of many integrated powers of that human being. Further, the "soul" is not a thing or substance on its own; nor does it reside in the brain, or the heart, but in every part of the whole embodied human being. It understands that "personhood" as defined by other philosophical systems confuses "person" with "personality"; that it is theoretically indefensible and leads to rather startling conclusions (Irving, 1991, 1992; Doran, 1989; Wilhelmsen, 1963; Barry, 1979).

Yet other scientific arguments are presented in which real existential distinctions are variously made between a human organism, a human being or a human person (Hare, 1988; Buckle, 1990; Dawson, 1990-A, 1990-B; Bedate and Cefalo, 1989; Suarez, 1990; Bole, 1989, 1990; Grobstein, 1985; McCormick, 1990; Ford, 1988; Coughlin, 1988, 1989; Wallace, 1989; Lockwood, 1988; Jones, 1989; Sass, 1989; Singer, 1981, 1985, 1987, 1989; Kuhse, 1985, 1986; Engelhardt, 1985; Goldenring, 1982, 1985; Kushner, 1984; Shea, 1985; Tooley, 1974; Tauer, 1985; Bennett, 1989).

For example, it is argued that at some embryological "marker event" post fertilization a human "person" is present; before that time there is only a human "being" present (at best). Bedate and Cefalo, for example, have submitted sophisticated scientific arguments that at fertilization there is not even a genetic individual present, much less a human being; "personhood" is not present until at least 14 days. Others (e.g., Grobstein and McCormick) have argued scientifically that at fertilization there is present a "genetic" individual - but that "genetic" individuality is not sufficient for the presence of an individual human "person". What is also needed, they argue, is the presence of a "developmental" individual, and that does not take place until about 14 days. Only a "developmental" individual can be a human "person".

If a writer is arguing scientifically for any kind of a real existential distinction between a human being and a human person, it should be pointed out that that science contains very specific philosophical presuppositions - e.g., scholasticism, dualism, rationalism, or empiricism. For example, any real distinctions empirically made between a human being and a human person contain what is known in philosophical anthropology as a "mind/body split" - an historical remnant of a Platonic/Cartesian dualism grounded in a very rationalistic school of philosophy. I will not go into the fascinating historical interplay between the reciprocal conceptual impact of philosophy and empirical science, although many have treated this matter elsewhere (Irving, 1991, 1992; Gilson, 1949; Crombie, 1959). Nor will I elaborate on the history or the disastrous consequences of the theoretical problems inherent in a scholastic, rationalistic, empiricist or dualistic mind/body split in philosophy (Irving, 1992; Fox, 1989; Doran, 1989; Gilson, 1963; Eslick, 1963; Coppleston, 1963; Wilhelmsen, 1956; Meilaender, 1987, 1989). Suffice it to say that philosophically a mind/body split implies the presence of not one but rather two or more independent substances which go to make up a single human being (or a single human person). One of a number of the theoretical problems is, of course, that if these substances are really in fact separate and independent, absolutely no interaction is possible between them. There is literally no way that so-called "rational attributes" (e.g., consciousness, self-consciousness, autonomy, relating with the world around one, desiring, willing, loving, hating, etc.) can concretely connect with the physical "body" which is supposed to be supporting such "rational attributes". Virtually all of the writers I will address in this paper do make such a distinction between a human being and a human person - most of them based on these types of theories of philosophy (whether acknowledged or not).

It might be curious to scientists to see where such a rationalistic philosophy takes one even in the field of science itself. For example, historically, one of the major philosophical sources of a mind/body split was Rene Descartes - who was both a scientist (physicist) and a philosopher. Descartes (Edwards, 1967) defined a human being as composed of two independent substances - "Mind" and "Body" (or "Extension"). Ultimately he defined a human being as "a thinking thing" - thus one source of the so-called "rational attributes" used in many of the arguments I will address below.

Descartes also defined the material world in terms of only one of those two substances, i.e., "extension". Because of this definition of the material world, and because he rejected the existence of a void, Descartes' philosophical theories impacted mischievously on his own theory of physics and his ability to even do science. For example, because he rejected the existence of a void, the material substance of the world was therefore continuous. This had serious consequences in his scientific theory of the vortex. The material world is not composed of ultimate atoms, but only of volumes, which must then move as a whole, i.e., a simultaneous movement of matter in some closed curve. Planetary motion, then, is defined as one infinite three-dimensional continuous and homogenous extended body.

If there is only one continuous extended substance, then he can only distinguish one body from another body in terms of differential volumes and secondary qualities. Therefore he cannot have a definition for density, or for viscosity. Descartes also omits "matter" from his definition of motion. Motion = speed x size - but "size" for Descartes is a continuous volume of body. Therefore his own physical Laws of Impact are actually, empirically, in error. He also cannot isolate a particular force (e.g., gravity) in terms of how a body would move if it were free from resistance, because to imagine it moving without resistance is to imagine it in a void - the existence of which he had rejected.

Also, Descartes concluded (based, again, on his theory of "being", or "substance") that animals have no minds, no pineal glands (the physical organ in humans where somehow, inexplicably, the Mind and the Body are capable of interacting), and no souls. Therefore they cannot feel any pain or pleasure, or any other kinds of sensations (sensations were only mental "modes of thought"). Since animals are only bodies, i.e., "machines", the only sense in which they can be hurt is to "damage" them.

This rationalistic philosophical system was eventually discredited and discarded by most of the scholarly community - yet, incredibly, remnants of it remain today. I would argue that such a rationalistic philosophical system contains such severe theoretical problems that it actually precludes one from doing either philosophy or science. And if applied to the current issue of human embryogenesis, it is clear that such a "theory" is grossly inadequate to explain either the philosophical theories or the biological phenomena which need to be addressed. It is clear that one cannot explain any interactions between the mind (or "soul"), and the body (or brain) of the developing human being -since they are two different substances which are separate from each other. There can be no connection between those "rational attributes" and the "body" (or brain). Nor can it explain the complex mechanisms of motion involved in the genetics, biochemistry and organogenesis so characteristic of human embryological development. Nor can the embryo's or fetus' body be distinctively its own, but must be shared quantitatively with the rest of the material world. Needless to say, however, this rationalistic philosophical theory is still used - often as paired with apparently erroneous scientific "data" - as demonstrated in many of the articles below.

* I would like to thank a number of colleagues who have provided important suggestions and encouragement: especially the Editor, Dr. Adil E. Shamoo, and Dr. Timothy Keay, who provided very thoughtful comments and suggested changes, many of which were incorporated into this paper; the suggestions of several participants at several conferences, especially those present at a conference on "Life and Learning" at Georgetown University, June 6, 1992, subsequently incorporated into a paper published as "Scientific and philosophical expertise: an evaluation of the arguments on "personhood", Linacre Quarterly, Feb. 1993; helpful comments by several colleagues at the N.I.H., Bethesda, MD, with whom I once worked as a research chemist, as well as several other kind scientists and physicians. Their advice, suggestions and candor is greatly appreciated. Any remaining errors or deficiencies are mine alone.

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