Weird Science on the Religious Right

"God said it. I believe it. That settles it." This familiar bumper sticker slogan appears to sum up the Religious Right's decision-making process on matters of heated public debate.

But when policies involving human biology and behavior are being hammered out, faith alone isn't always sufficient to win over voters and decision-makers. At such times, a bit of scientific evidence comes in handy, and some of the Religious Right's operatives aren't too choosy about where they get it.

Consider the following seven claims, the quality of the scientific evidence that supports them and the potential consequences, were they to be widely accepted:

"Condoms are full of holes"

That's according to Concerned Women For America and many other right-wing groups. How big are those holes? Big enough that an HIV particle or even a sperm can easily wander through, if you believe this scary diagram from

condom holes

Organizations that advertise gaping holes of 5 microns (.0002 inch) or more in condoms often turn out to be misapplying data from a 1993 paper by scientist C.M. Roland. Possibly confused by the title of the journal in which Roland published his work -- Rubber World -- they fail to note that his experiments were done with latex gloves, not condoms.

On the other hand, a 1998 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report noted that when 1-micron holes were intentionally drilled in condom latex, a sensitive test could detect them, but the same test could find no holes in undrilled condoms. That indicated that condoms have no holes bigger than 1 micron, unless researchers poke the holes themselves. And in a 50-micron-thick condom, even a 1-micron-wide hole is really a narrow tunnel that would have little chance of reaching through the entire thickness, let alone allowing HIV particles through.

The overall conclusion of the FDA study: "All the latex films representing a wide range of formulations and ages were effective barriers to transmission of the small virus. Thus, permeation through quite thin, stretched samples with this very sensitive test was not found."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fact sheet on condoms states that "Laboratory studies have demonstrated that latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of STD pathogens." And, of course, a far larger sperm cell has no chance of escape.

That information is buried in the midst of a previously informative CDC document that was largely gutted under the Bush Administration. While noting, correctly, that condoms are not 100 percent effective, the current fact sheet no longer contains information on proper use of condoms.

Condom failure is actually overwhelmingly due to mistakes or accidents during their use, not manufacture or testing, so the fact sheet now put out by the CDC, and influenced by the Religious Right, may be making unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection more likely, not less so.

A footnote: Concerned Women for America's "full of holes" claim was based on a press release by the National Physicians Center for Family Resources. That obscure group came under fire this summer in Congress for the Bush administration's website, which it produced. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. and 145 nongovernmental organizations condemned the site for misleading teenagers about condoms and other sexual issues.

"Phonics is the only effective way to teach reading"

Have you ever wondered why right-wing Christian parents and educators are so intent on promoting phonics (a method of teaching reading that stresses basic symbol-sound relationships) and so abhor "whole language" learning (in which children learn words by reading them in context)?

The answer you'll get from phonics advocates is simply that it works, as indicated by better test scores (at least when the tests include questions on phonics!). But there appears to be consensus among researchers outside the Religious Right that the most effective approach is a broad, integrated one that incorporates some phonics training and a lot of reading.

The most pertinent research I've seen on the Christian phonics fixation (by the way, why do those last two words begin with different letters?) was done by Mark Thogmartin. Here are excerpts of some of the reasons he heard from phonics enthusiasts, as he listed them in a 1997 issue of Home Education magazine:
  • "More holistic approaches to reading instruction are more child-centered and seem to assert the inherent goodness of the child, which is opposed to the basic Christian doctrine of a sinful nature derived from the fall of Adam."
  • "A phonics approach to reading instruction, with its usual dependence on drill and rote memorization, is more compatible with the rigidly disciplined environment of most Christian schools."
  • "Often, theorists who believe in a more holistic, meaning-centered reading instruction philosophy have ... suggested that a child's ability to extract the meaning from print is the primary objective of reading any passage. This may sound almost blasphemous to Christians who believe in the literal, verbal inspiration of scripture."

Probably the chief reason for the Christian Rights's crusade against whole-language learning is a concern about its association throughout the 20th century with the left side of the U.S. political spectrum. Indeed, conservative Christian writer Samuel Blumenfeld has suggested, according to Thogmartin, that whole-language-style methodology "was initiated as a deliberate attempt by socialists to lower the literacy rates in America. An illiterate society would be more dependent on the 'Big Brother' socialist government, making a socialist takeover much easier."

"Abortion causes breast cancer"

The heavily publicized "ABC Hypothesis" -- that having an abortion increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer -- is not supported by valid research. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it is "well established" that "induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk."

But ABC proponents such as Karen Malec, president of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, claim that the NIH is party to a coverup, and that in fact "abortion causes breast cancer." To support that assertion, they often cite research in which women suffering from breast cancer, as well as women who are cancer-free, are asked whether they have ever had an abortion.

But in such situations, say ABC's critics, healthy women are less likely to be forthcoming about past abortions than are those who are currently undergoing treatment for a grave illness. Studies that avoid that bias by relying wholly on medical records have found no link.

Many environmental and genetic factors interact throughout a woman's life to push or pull her down a road either toward or away from breast cancer. No one factor can be said to "cause" the disease -- certainly not one like abortion, for which even a valid statistical association cannot be detected.

In an attempt to seal her argument, Malec often claims that abortion "causes" breast cancer through the simple mechanism of preventing childbirth. Perhaps inadvertently shedding some light on her underlying motivations, she has written that "experts universally agree that having a child provides a woman with a natural protection against breast cancer and that it is healthier for a married woman not to postpone her first full-term pregnancy."

"Remote prayer cures disease"

There could well be all sorts of "mind-body" mechanisms through which prayer in the presence of a patient, or by the patient herself, might provide medical benefits. But what if so-called "remote intercessory prayer" -- that is, praying for a far-away patient without that patient's knowledge -- could be proven to produce medically detectable results? That would really be something, wouldn't it?

Amazingly, in 2001, a paper demonstrating the effectiveness of remote prayer turned up in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. In that study, scientists at Columbia University showed that by saying appropriate prayers, groups of people in the US, Australia, and Canada apparently increased the pregnancy rate in women who had undergone in vitro fertilization in Korea.

But before long, critics led by Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Irvine, showed that the study was suspiciously designed and statistically flawed. Then it came to light that one of the paper's three authors, Daniel Wirth, lacked a medical degree but did sport an impressive criminal record.

A year after the paper was published, Wirth, a faith-healing con man, was indicted for stealing $3.4 million in income and property through the use of false identities. He pled guilty to conspiracy charges in May 2004. (The charges were unconnected to the prayer study).

In October 2004, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a correction stating that another of the paper's authors, Rogerio A. Lobo, had requested that his name be removed from the paper. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had found that Lobo first learned of the study six to 12 months after its completion.

To date, no statistically significant evidence of successful remote intercessory prayer has been published.

Private prayer has no obvious implications for government policy, unless research on the subject is paid for by taxpayers. And -- you guessed it -- that has indeed happened. The National Institutes for Health, through its National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has funded research on remote intercessory prayer at least twice since 1992.

"Emergency contraception is a health hazard"

The so-called "morning-after pill" -- a single tablet containing hormones similar to those in birth control pills but in a larger dose -- prevents pregnancy by blocking fertilization or implantation of the egg. Side effects may include some flu-like symptoms, which appear to be less severe than common side effects of early pregnancy, and of shorter duration.

David Reardon, Director of the anti-abortion Elliot Institute, offers this retort to FDA researchers who have declared the pill safe: "Actually, what they really mean by 'safe' is simply that women aren't dropping down dead." Like other critics of emergency contraception on the Religious Right, unencumbered by any scientific evidence, he conjures up dark images of devastating long-term health risks from taking the pill.

What has Christian extremists up in arms about emergency contraception is that it may prevent implantation and development of an already fertilized egg, which they regard as the death of a human being. That belief, of course, has long been the subject of philosophical debate. Exaggerating health hazards is simply a way of doing an end run on the philosophical question and getting the pill's use restricted or banned outright.

In 2004, the FDA refused to permit over-the-counter sales of Barr Laboratories' "Plan B" emergency contraception product. In so doing, the agency overruled its own scientific advisory panel, which had recommended that such sales be allowed. In May 2005, The Nation and the Washington Post quoted one conservative evangelical member of the advisory panel, W. David Hager, as he boasted to an Asbury College congregation -- in a videotaped sermon -- of his role in getting Plan B restricted:
"After two days of hearings, the committees voted to approve this over-the-counter sale by 23 to 4. I was asked to write a minority opinion that was sent to the commissioner of the FDA. For only the second time in five decades, the FDA did not abide by its advisory committee opinion, and the measure was rejected. Now the opinion I wrote was not from an evangelical Christian perspective. ... But I argued it from a scientific perspective, and God took that information, and He used it through this minority report to influence the decision."
He added, "Once again, what Satan meant for evil, God turned into good."

The FDA is revisiting the question of over-the-counter sales of Plan B and will issue a ruling by the end of this month.

"Terri Schiavo could have gotten better"

When Schiavo's autopsy was released publicly on June 15, 2005, it showed, in the words of the district medical examiner, that her brain damage "was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons."

The report did not state that Schiavo was in a "permanent vegetative state" (PVS), because PVS is defined in clinical terms and not demonstrated through autopsy. The Religious Right has latched onto the report's silence on PVS, continuing to insist that, based on the autopsy, "we really can't know how she died."

Pointing to the absence of a PVS diagnosis in the autopsy report, a spokesperson for the organization Focus on the Family said that "People are grasping at straws to justify the dehydration death of Terri Schiavo."

Of course, before Schiavo's death, clinical observation by medical experts did confirm that she was in a permanent vegetative state from which she could never recover. Evidence to the contrary, of course, could have provided a compelling reason to continue life support indefinitely. And for a while, hopes for restoration of Schiavo's consciousness appeared to rest on one man: William Hammesfahr, M.D.

The Schiavo family selected the Clearwater, Fla. neurologist to testify before Florida's Sixth Circuit Court in 2002 that his "vasodilation therapy" could revive Schiavo. But the court order that followed was scathing in its assessment of Hammesfahr's arguments:
It is clear that this therapy is not recognized in the medical community ... and what undermines his credibility is that he did not present to this court any evidence other than his generalized statements as to the efficacy of his therapy on brain damaged individuals like Terry Schiavo. He testified that he has treated about 50 patients in the same or worse condition than Terry Schiavo since 1994 but he offered no names, no case studies, no videos and no tests results to support his claim that he had success in all but one of them.
The Court was also skeptical about Hammesfahr's claim to be a "Nobel Prize nominee," and with good reason. He based the claim on nothing more than a letter written on his behalf by Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Fla., who is not eligible to make Nobel nominations.

"Humans are not descended from pre-human ancestors."

For a good story, give me that old-time creationism, with its 6,000-year-old Earth and big flood. But that's not an easy sell when you're dealing with school boards and other government institutions. So these days, the anti-evolution Right talks mostly about intelligent design (ID).

Many proponents of ID -- which is creationism dressed up in a white lab coat -- have accomodated scientific reality to some extent by admitting, for example, that the Earth really is 4.5 billion years old or that natural selection can occur within certain strict limits. However, they are unwavering in their insistence that individual species are the products of custom design, not natural selection. And that applies doubly to our own species.

As they labor to explain how humans were created -- while trying to avoid being buried under a growing mountain of physical and genetic data that demonstrates our primate ancestry -- ID thinkers have exhibited some impressive creativity of their own. Among their efforts to reconcile the intelligent design of humans with real science, the award for Most Imaginative goes to Jonathan Wells.

A Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and author of the creationist classic Icons of Evolution (2000), Wells wrote the following as part of a paper he presented to the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences, a forum established by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church:
Some people believe that the first human beings were created fully grown. But ... a creature that begins life without passing through birth and childhood would be so unlike us that we could not regard it as truly human, regardless of how great the superficial resemblance. And because human babies are totally dependent on other creatures for their survival during early development, animals capable of raising the first human babies must have been a necessary part of the original plan.
Human babies need milk to survive and grow, so mammals had to exist before humans appeared. And not just any mammal. The first human baby presumably had to be nurtured by a creature very much like itself -- a humanlike primate. This creature, in turn, could only have been nurtured by a creature intermediate in some respects between it and a more primitive mammal. In other words, a plan for the emergence of human beings must have included something like the succession of prehistoric forms we find in the fossil record.
Intelligent Design is an attempt to squeeze a creation story -- any creation story, whether it features Adam and Eve or motherly monkeys -- through cracks in the First Amendment and into public classrooms. This process is at various stages of completion in Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states. And President Bush himself recently endorsed the teaching of ID.

Well, you have to admit that when the Religious Right and its innovative researchers get involved, science is anything but dry and dull.

But when society is trying to come to a collective decision on science-related issues that can have profound consequences for millions of people, we need something more substantial than gripping fiction and colorful characters.

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