A blog by Barry Edelson


The following refers to two articles in the November 30, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.


There are striking parallels between Ariel Levy's account of gender identity in the case of the South African runner Caster Semenya ("Either/Or"), and Jill Lapore's retrospective on the case of Karen Ann Quinlan ("The Politics of Death"). Both stories make it abundantly clear that a vast expansion of scientific knowledge, rather than clarifying the simple truths by which human society has long tried to set its moral compass, has made it more and more difficult to make perfect distinctions between even such straightforward dichotomies as male/female and life/death.

The two stories also make it painfully obvious that, as science inexorably undermines many preconceived notions about humanity, political rhetoric surrounding scientific issues grows more absolutist. Where scientists are increasingly unsure about where to draw lines, demagogues of all persuasions evidently have no compunction about deciding where the lines should be. There is a chilling similarity between South African leaders who would exploit a young athlete's predicament for their own nationalist ends, and American politicians who would use a comatose young woman to advance their own causes. This tendency to ignore science or, worse, to force complex scientific realities into divisions of black and white that are not supported by evidence, is a threat not only to the rational discourse of civil society, but to the well-being of individuals who do not fit into ideologically prescribed molds.

Those who now routinely demonize as Hitler any leader with whom they disagree would do well to remember that the real danger isn't science, or the doubt it sows in people's minds, but ideological certitude that seduces even decent nations into tyranny. Jacob Bronowski said at Auschwitz, where members of his family were murdered: "When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods."

December 1, 2009

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