Cantering to the gas chamber

A society doesn’t capsize all at once; it leans by degrees. It tilts, and the opinion mavens who are its deckhands rush about reassuring everyone that it’s the horizon that is at fault. We are finally leveling things, they say, now clip your belt to the rail so you don’t go overboard. The enlightened canter society, they level it to their horizon-scorning vision, and then, once a sufficient pitch is reached, gravity takes care of the rest.

I can’t calculate the current slope of the Great American Degradation, but when I read about doctors shamelessly subjecting infants to experimental risks while concealing those risks from the parents, I feel my ankles pop. Researchers at the University of Alabama-Birmingham medical center experimented with oxygen given to dramatically underweight infants, in an effort to fine-tune common treatment practices. The result was greater incidence of blindness for one group of babies, and more deaths among another group. Here’s an excerpt from my recent essay at Good Letters:

A review by the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concludes that risk-disclosures to parents were inadequate, because they listed potential benefits, but mentioned no dangers beyond possible skin irritation from the oxygen monitors. The researchers defend themselves by noting that none of the babies received oxygen outside the range deemed acceptable in standard medical practice. Therefore, they explain, they told the truth when they told parents that “there is no predictable increase in risk for your baby.”

But of course they were predicting risks, at least amongst themselves and their funders. This suspicion was the entire purpose, after all, of the study—to test whether premature infants are subjected to unnecessarily high risks of blindness by current practices. But because no such study has conclusively shown this, there is no scientific proof of the danger. Thus the researchers felt justified in not disclosing their hypotheses to the parents. There was no math, after all.

Well, there is now.

This isn’t just a story about researchers making bad decisions. This is a direct consequence of our modern perversion of science, which leads us to assert that the only things which can be known are the things about which we have data.

That’s not an indictment of science, mind you—of experimentation and measurement and testing falsifiable hypotheses. It is an indictment of the materialism and utilitarianism that have crept into scientific fields as we’ve abandoned their philosophical underpinnings. If you reject the human elements of science—the intuition, the tacit knowing, the sense of beauty and truth and rightness that has always guided scientific inquiry—then you dehumanize scientific efforts. You divorce morality from expediency. You make weaker, voiceless human beings—in this case, 1300 mostly poor and minority babies and their families—means to the ends of the stronger.

And your denuded reasoning allows you to get away with it. “There was no predictable increase in risk,” the doctors say. They still believe it. Some of their comrades believe they shouldn’t have been required to get permission in the first place.

History tells us where this leads. I write that not with a fear of sounding alarmist, but with a desire to sound the alarm. This does not end, believe me, with scientists quietly obscuring risks to their poor black subjects in Alabama. It ends, as it always has, in fanaticism—fanaticism which pretends it is something else because it cloaks itself in the language of cool rationality, of scientific progress, of unblinking commitment to the greatest material good for the greatest fit number. It ends, for those deemed weak or useless or dangerous,  in the gulag and the gas chamber.

Do you feel the weight shifting? Best clip yourself to the rail.


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