November 10, 2005

CSI and proof by arcane science

I love watching CSI. It's intelligent, it's stylish, and it's an original spin on the crime drama, showing the plot from the point of view of the investigating forensic scientists, instead of the police or the lawyers. Hence, for the most part, the stories revolve around science (albeit occasionally dodgy) and puzzle-solving instead of action.

So it was surprising to see last week's episode, "Secrets and Flies," take a distinctly un-scientific turn. The primary plot focused on the dead mother of an infant that had been conceived in vitro and implanted in his mother. This was accomplished through "Project Sunflower," an agency that takes the position that the unborn, even frozen embryos, are fully human persons worthy of protection. So they take abandoned embryos from fertility clinics and gave them to women willing to "adopt" and carry them to term, as an alternative to destroying them.

Then again, this is prime-time programming. So, of course, the rules say that deeply religious people are weird, ignorant, superstitious, and misguided - and indeed Dr. Emily Ryan, the director of Project Sunflower is portrayed as glassy-eyed and smug, not to mention irritated when investigator Catherine "Cat" Willows questions her medical credentials. By contrast, the savvy Cat knows as much about Church history as blood spatter patterns:

Cat: If I understand your program correctly, you take these embryos and you place them in available wombs?

Ryan: We seek out special unselfish women who are prepared to adopt at the embryonic stage of development. We believe that the soul is infused when sperm meets egg. That's when life begins.

Cat: Are you aware that throughout much of history, the official Church position held that a child's life begins when the mother first becomes aware of movement?

Ryan: Oh, that's your opinion.

Cat: In the 16th century, the Pope proclaimed that embryos less than 40 days old are not human. That is not my opinion.


Ryan: You've had an abortion, Miss Willows.

Cat: Huh! No. Thank God I decided not to have one. But we are not talking about me, Dr. Ryan. . . . Are you a medical doctor?

Ryan: I don't care for that insinuation.

Cat: Oh, it's just a question. I take it that's a no?


Ryan: I have a very busy afternoon. What exactly can I do for you?

Later in the episode, Cat gives a reason for her hostility toward Dr. Ryan: she is pro-choice and in favour of stem-cell research. (I guess she is disappointed that a frozen embryo gets a chance to be made into a baby instead of experimented on.)

Instead of making Dr. Ryan into a shady character - since it didn't matter to the plot anyway and was just a gimmick to give Cat a reason to threaten her with a court order - how difficult would it have been to have her answer something like this?

Cat: Are you aware that throughout much of history, the official Church position held that a child's life begins when the mother first becomes aware of movement?

Ryan: That might be true, Miss Willows, but that mistaken idea is the product of a pre-scientific era. A medieval Pope couldn't have dreamed about everything that modern medical technology has told us about human reproduction. A human embryo is a living, genetically distinct individual from the moment sperm and ovum fuse and start to develop. In fact, other than conception, there is really no other time where we can say that something came into being that wasn't there before.

We have to at least give Aristotle credit for one thing: in a pre-scientific era, there was precious little way to detect a pregnancy. At least the time of "quickening" offered some sort of empirical evidence that a baby was on the way. Aristotle didn't know any better. He couldn't have.

But in 2005, this is obsolete science. Aristotle lived 2000 years before the invention of the microscope - let alone X-rays, sonograms, amniocentesis, or laparoscopy. He hadn't a clue what a cell was, let alone DNA. He had never observed mitosis in action. Today, a high school biology student knows more about pregancy than Aristotle did, and anyone with a library card can obtain a reputable textbook on biology or obstetrics and become more knowledgeable than him in a matter of hours. Unfortunately, by Aquinas' day, the science wasn't much better. However, for him, Aristotle was the philosopher, and in large measure Aquinas himself was the theologian of the medieval Roman church. Thus ancient scientific ignorance became ossified as "fact" for far too many centuries.

A few weeks ago, someone (who claimed a graduate degree in philosophy) made this same argument to me in favour of early-term abortion. He argued that life begins at quickening, and therefore abortion should be permissible up to that point. He cited Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and "the official stance of the Catholic Church" in support. However, it was obvious that I was dealing with a dilettante after only a few rounds; he couldn't justify his continued appeals to medieval philosophy over and above 21st century medicine, and became abusive when pressed on the point.

The odd thing is that this pre-scientific Greek notion would be cited as an authoritative fact, intended to be intellectually respectable, on a television program that at least pays lip service to reason and good science. Today we do know better. A human embryo has begun to develop human features practically before the mother realizes she is pregnant. A fetal heartbeat can now be detected at about 22 days; only a couple weeks later its brain activity can be measured on an EEG.

One would assume that a forensic scientist - not to mention a mother - would know this. Instead, solely to make the pro-abortion-rights-slash-pro-embryonic-stem-cell-research position into the intellectually respectable one, the scriptwriters make the scientist sound not like a scientist, but a pseudo-intellectual philosophy graduate.

(As an aside, note how Cat seems to assume that citing "the Church" and "the Pope" ought to settle the matter. Yet there is no indication, before or after, that Dr. Ryan is a Roman Catholic, hence no reason to assume that Catholic opinion carries any weight with her.)

A few minutes later in the episode, Cat's supervisor, Gil Grissom, tells her she should have cited Leviticus 17:11. After all, if "the life of the flesh is in the blood," then the verse ought to be a show-stopper for any theologically-minded person, or so he said. The writers are no better theologians than they are scientists, it seems.

The handful of posts this episode generated was really the most interesting thing in the blogosphere this week, and I eagerly anticipated seeing yet another CSI-related summary pop up. In lieu of this week's Friday in the Wild, I offer a selection of critiques:

  • Melinda at the Stand to Reason Blog comments on Amy K. Hall's critique, noting that the writers would have us believe that allowing embryos to develop into children thwarts the efforts of stem-cell researchers.
  • The Pedantic Protestant calls the episode "Dumdum TV" and challenges Grissom's theological blunder: "[S]ome writer somewhere felt as if he could attack my position [and those of other Christians] by the moronic reasoning exhibited. You'd think the writers would be able to tell what the context of a passage is."
  • Blogcorner Preacher posts his take on Leviticus 17:11 as well.