In April, the Liberian Ministry of Health launched the report of a study on the incidence of abortion and severity of related complications in the country. The study had been carried out mainly by the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), with funding and collaboration from the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and the Guttmacher Institute. According to the report, a summary of whose findings is available on the APHRC’s website, 38,779 induced abortions happened in Liberia in 2021, an annualised rate of 229 per 1,000 live births. In other words, nearly a fifth of all pregnancies in Liberia were ended by an induced abortion (without counting miscarriages). This is a staggering number, and featured strongly in an August attempt to overhaul Liberia’s abortion legislation to legalise clinical abortion. But there is something very fishy about these numbers. And it’s a weakness that arguably so hobbles studies into the incidence of abortion in African countries as to make them virtually worthless. As it happens, abortion is largely illegal in most African countries (including in Liberia). Though very few people have ever been prosecuted, and even fewer convicted, for procuring them, the laws remain on the books, primarily because they are a reflection of public opinion; Africans generally disapprove of abortion, and resist most attempts to normalise the murderous practice. But that hasn’t stopped Western merchants of death, like the institutions that funded the Liberian study, from advocating for the expansion of access to abortion on the continent. However, they cannot do that unless they can first prove that there exists a substantial “unmet need” for so-called safe abortion services. Enter the studies on abortion incidence and complications. Owing to its illegality across much of the continent, it is impossible to collect direct data about abortion. Incidence and complications studies, therefore, attempt to produce estimates based on a number of presumably related factors. The Liberian study, like most others carried out by the APHRC, was done using a popular methodology known as the Abortion Incidence Complications Method (AICM), which was developed in the early 1990s and has been used to estimate abortion incidence in dozens of countries around the world. Based on the assumption that complications related to induced abortion would be reported as miscarriages to circumvent the law and stigma, this technique tries to comb through a representative sample of reported miscarriages; tease out which of these were likely induced; and then extrapolate that into a national estimate.
A recent issue of Physics Today described a new field called "attribution science" which endeavours to attribute certain extreme weather events to human-caused climate change. I'm not going to get into the specifics of the particular examples it cites, because they are many and varied. But I will note that this kind of activity is becoming quite popular, not only in the physics community but in geosciences as well. I have read several papers in which the authors make statements like "This Japanese heat wave is virtually certain to have been caused by human-induced climate change." What I would like to examine is the philosophical bona fides of this type of activity. That is, what is the logical chain, assuming there is one, from the starting premises of such a statement's argument that leads to such disturbing and definite conclusions? To say A is caused by B with some degree of confidence, we can do one of a number of things. One way to verify such a statement is to take B away and see if A still happens. Unfortunately, we can't just take another identical Earth, remove most of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then see how it runs after that. The experiment we are running with this planet is unique, as far as we know, and so our ability to fiddle with the variables in different experimental runs is nil. Another way to verify causality is to show that when A happens, B happens shortly afterwards and not when A doesn't happen. The Physics Today article calls this kind of causality "Granger causality" and says there are statistical methods to predict B happening based on statistics concerning A and B, whatever they might be. But, as the article points out, this kind of test is subject to the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy (meaning roughly "afterwards, therefore because of"). That is, just because the New York City blackout of 1965 happened right after a kid hit a light pole with a stick doesn't mean that the kid caused the blackout—despite what the terror-stricken kid confessed to his mother when he got home. What the attributionists typically do is to gin up some atmospheric models that produce probabilities of this or that event that they are trying to blame on people. Then they tinker with the atmosphere's CO2 levels, or concentration of aerosols, or something that is pretty clearly due to human activity. And then they run their models again to see if they get the same disastrous weather that happened before, or whether leaving the human activity out makes it less likely. The logical problem with this game is that no climate model I know of includes absolutely everything that affects the climate. They all approximate or ignore certain factors. So anything claimed for these models can be answered by asking, "Sez who? And how do you know that something you ignored wouldn't give you different results than you got?" Logically speaking, there is no defensible reply to that question. I have done some very simple modelling of physical systems, and let me tell you: it's very easy to get almost anything you want, and the more variables there are, the easier it is to do that. And I'm not necessarily accusing the parties involved of fraud. They may be honestly trying to make their models work better, not make them produce the results they want. But the dividing line between "work better" and "get the results we want" is a thin and permeable one.
Organ transplantation is undoubtedly one of the most significant medical advances of the twentieth century and is often in the headlines. The very first human heart transplant performed in South Africa by Dr Christiaan Barnard in 1967 rapidly made him a household name across the world. As one journalist commented at the time, the story had ‘everything a reporter could wish for’ and it became ‘the operation that took medicine into the media age’. Transplants have been in the headlines again this month with the announcement of the first-ever UK womb transplant, carried out by Professor Richard Smith and his team at Oxford, though as noted by at least one UK legal scholar, there was very little media comment about the ethics of the procedure. The Ethics of Global Organ Acquisition: Moral Arguments about TransplantationBy Trevor Stammers. Bloomsbury. 2023. 272 pages. The European Society for Organ Transplantation has also just concluded its 2023 Congress at which a number of new significant advances were announced which could in future increase the number of organs available for transplant from deceased donors. Deceased infants The most significant of these was a report from the US which found that of 21,000 neonates who died in 2020, more than 12,000 were potential organ donors. Very few countries permit donations from neonates, but in those that do, the transplanted kidneys from neonates show catch-up growth and were reported to function better than those from living donors. Professor Gabriel Oniscu, the incoming President of ESOT, acknowledged the ‘highly emotive nature’ of the issues involved in approaching parents about deceased donation from their newborn infants, but considered it ‘imperative that every European country has dedicated paediatric donation protocols in place that encompass neonatal organ donation procedures.’
Others have a fancy for a good horse or dog or bird: my fancy, stronger even than theirs, is for good friends. And I teach them all the good I can and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I open and explore with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we extract it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. – Socrates (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, I.6) Homer. Plato. Shakespeare. Augustine. Dante. Kant. Dostoyevsky. Morrison. Imagine filling in a couple hundred more recognisable authors, representing the classic texts, or “Great Books,” of Western civilisation. Can we responsibly compose a twenty-first-century college education around the reading, careful study, and discussion of those texts, complemented by careful study of languages, writing, mathematical demonstration, music theory, and laboratory science? At St. John’s College, Santa Fe and Annapolis, probably the best-known pure Great Books college (also, notably, not religious despite the name), we believe not just that you can pursue education this way, but that it is one of the very best ways to achieve all the most important aims of a college education. Having just completed my ninth year as Dean and twentieth on the faculty, I have faced again and again a catalogue of sceptical or anxious questions and challenges to our model. These include questions about liberal education and the liberal arts (often mistakenly taken to be synonymous with the humanities) and, of course, questions about the Great Books. In my world, there is constant handwringing and debate about cost and affordability (and institutional sustainability); about the politics of race and gender and the current academic (and broader) culture wars; about safety, violence, and self-harm on our campuses; and about the deleterious effects of technology (notably smartphones, social media, and generative AI) on student mental health, socialisation, and academic preparedness and integrity. These concerns point to the need for greater commitment to our schools and colleges and greater investment, both financial and moral, in education at all levels. They point to the need for renewal, inspiration, and ambition within our educational culture. They point to the need to recentre education on the human person and on the humane values embodied in the traditions of the liberal arts and liberal education and their analogues in primary and secondary education — that is, education on a human scale, with teachers and students, parents and friends studying and learning together, in small communities, in small classes, in relatively de-technologised environments. And finally, they point to the pressing need to cultivate habits of mind and character, both intellectual and moral, that will equip students to navigate and address the growing challenges we face as a society. In my experience, among open-minded students and parents, the salient challenges to “the most contrarian college in America” (and to the liberal arts more broadly) come under a few headings. I cannot pretend to fully answer them here, but I can sketch where more thorough answers and arguments might go. Cost and Return on Investment: College is too expensive. I (or my child) will be burdened by student loan debt. This can be aimed at all higher education, but is particularly projected onto seemingly high-priced private and liberal arts colleges. Yet for most students receiving financial aid, private colleges can be as or more affordable than public ones. Our graduates’ debt loads prove moderate by national standards and are easily eclipsed by the expected difference in earnings both short- and long-term. The average lifetime financial benefits of a college education, including in the humanities and liberal arts, make it a wise investment for the overwhelming majority of students and their families, moderate student debt loads notwithstanding. Even when we rehearse these well-known data, financial anxiety, especially among low- and middle-income families and among first-generation college students and their households, remains understandably high. Attending college is a high-stakes decision in every way, including financially. Higher education at all levels needs to continue to work toward greater access and affordability and greater transparency. However, we also need to be willing to defend patiently and thoroughly the cost, the investment, and the value proposition of a liberal arts education. Practicality, Specialisation, and Majors: What will my child do with this liberal arts degree? Our answer has long been “whatever they want.” It is a preparation for life and, in principle, can lead them on toward almost any area in their career. Educational “consumers,” reflecting our broader social discourse, overestimate the necessity and value of early specialisation and career focus in higher education. Data have long shown, and in some cases increasingly show, that many students will end up with a different major from what they predict as incoming students (or they will change their major altogether). More generally, an increasing number of college graduates work in areas not directly connected to their majors. This is tied to the (perhaps paradoxical) fact that technological and economic evolution means that workers will change jobs and types of jobs more now, over the course of their careers, than ever before. This fact puts a premium on transferable skills and generalisable abilities and versatility, for instance, skills like verbal and written communication. There are understandable, if unfortunate, economic and cultural reasons why career and income anxiety weigh heavily on the minds of college students and their parents. Ironically, however, the most far-sighted among us see that many of the trends driving that anxiety point to sustaining or renewing the values and achievements associated with a liberal arts education, while devaluing potentially transient technical or narrowly specialised training at the undergraduate level. The impact that technological disruptions and economic uncertainty are having on career prospects and stability heightens the value of the broad-based, transferable skills inculcated by a well-balanced liberal education (which includes mathematics and natural science). Technical training is increasingly “perishable.” Aiming at a narrow career path, however trendy, is an increasingly high-risk strategy. The more fluid our career lives become, and the more dynamic and disruptive technological and economic forces and innovations are, the more we should anchor our undergraduate education, at least in large part, on broad, secure, lasting foundations and goals. Presentism and Scientific Progress: What can Plato or Ptolemy teach us about our world today? This challenge is so deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness that responding to it requires us to excavate our widely held assumptions. The model of historical progress is right at the heart of our modern Western, now global, civilisation. Experience does better than arguments here, but we should accept that we cannot really understand our contemporary world, or its achievements, without understanding how we got here. This inquiry includes, perhaps above all, the foundational works–of philosophy, literature, theology, and science – that have shaped our world, that have given us the horizons of language, values, and knowledge that we inhabit. We can find forms of beauty and virtue and knowledge in the classics of the past. We may find that we have lost understanding of some things, even as we have gained understanding of others. Yet challenging the assumptions of one’s own time and place is perhaps the key to becoming a free mind capable of making sound judgments. Careful reading and exploration deepen our understanding of our current world by showing its roots. They also sharpen our self-knowledge and self-understanding and open us up to consider genuine alternatives that reflect different individual and cultural achievements of the past. STEM for All: I want my child to pursue a STEM major or career, or at the least, be versed in the STEM disciplines. The orientation of higher education toward what we now call STEM education represents a long (decades-, even centuries-long) arc of evolution. But we are living at a moment when several factors have converged to intensify this trend: the dazzling effects of contemporary technology, the related concern about sustainable career paths, economic anxiety, and scepticism of the substance of what is taught in the humanities all loom large. We need to calm the fever around STEM. The “S” (science) and “M” (mathematics) should simply be part and parcel of a well-balanced liberal education. All liberal education advocates should staunchly defend a traditional balance of the liberal arts (reflected, for example, in the classical “trivium” of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). The liberal arts may be anchored in the humanities today, so be it, but the liberal arts must be broader than that. Liberal education requires deep engagement with math and science, and this too can be done in a way that is “humane” and liberating and valuable for all students, not just for those oriented toward STEM careers. And for those who are so oriented, most students will do better and go further in their careers if they expand the broad basis of their education and delay to some extent the technical specialisation they may know or think they want to pursue.
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