The stink of uneaten side orders

Posted: February 19th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Politics, Public Health, Science | No Comments »

Continuing on the implication from the government possibly reversing itself on cholesterol recommendations, Charles Lane ponders what the reversal means for public health and policy in, Science, with a side order of humility. Since this is not a diet blog, this is what matters here:

There’s a lesson here for all of us, especially those who urge that this or that public policy be dictated by “the science.”

We’re doomed to rely on science; imperfect as it is, it beats the alternatives. The trick is for scientists to produce their work with appropriate humility, and for citizens to consume it with appropriate skepticism. …

Precisely because it is, or aspires to be, value-free, science is better at describing social problems than solving them. Policymaking is all about value judgments and trade-offs. Science can prove that man-made climate change, for example, is real; the “right” way to address it is a matter of morality and politics.

In the past Mr. Lane very much cared about “the science” of circumcision in the way he rebukes above. Commenting on reactions to the Cologne court decision in 2012, before German legislators (i.e. policymakers) passed a law to override the court, Lane wrote (several links omitted):

I suppose I would agree with the court, and Andrew [Sullivan], if there was definitive proof that male circumcision, even performed under medically appropriate conditions (as the vast, vast majority are), constitutes “barbaric” “mutilation” of the genitals. Thorough as always, Andrew musters a video of some uncircumcised Canadian guy talking about masturbation and a blog post by an Oxford philosophy prof to prove that a) foreskin serves a vital sexual function and b) studies showing circumcision prevents HIV transmission are flawed.

The truth is that male circumcision does no permanent harm and might be slightly beneficial. There are risks to the procedure, but they are generally exceedingly minor. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Urological Association take the position that neonatal circumcision is a choice that may be safely left to the informed discretion of parents. Among other insults, the Cologne court impugns parents’ concern for the health of their own children.

On the sexual function point, the World Health Organization has declared that it “has not been systematically reviewed, and remains unclear due to substantial biases in many studies.” To those like Andrew’s Canadian dude who insist that missing foreskin would diminish sensation, I offer the circumcised Woody Allen’s famous assessment of his orgasms: “My worst one was right on the money.”

Anyway, injury to this bit of erogenous tissue would not be mutilation of the “genitals,” strictly speaking, since it plays no direct role in male reproduction.

Witness how Lane discarded the position that male circumcision constitutes mutilation. The claim comes from “some uncircumcised (sic) Canadian guy talking about masturbation and a blog post by an Oxford philosophy prof,” so we can dismiss it. That’s ad hominem, not refutation. Experience is anecdotal, but can be informative. And philosophers should obviously be involved. Non-therapeutic circumcision by proxy consent implicates ethics and rights, particularly – but not limited to – the rights of the child as expressed by the German court.

Rather than discussing the ways studies may be flawed to rebut them, Lane moved on to his opinion, omitting the fact that removing the foreskin itself constitutes harm. He quotes two professional organizations to support his position (while ignoring the flaws in the AAP’s position, for example). Enjoy what he wrote yesterday:

Doctors and researchers, authors of “medical miracles,” are more like a priesthood, or a cadre of sorcerers, than we generally admit. Their legitimacy is based on something real, and time-tested — the scientific method — but it also comes from the mystique of their diplomas and white coats.

He supported a policy statement based on science applied as value judgement and trade-off, with input on the value judgement and trade-off from everyone except the person upon whom it’s applied.

He moves on to the World Health Organization’s statement that sexual function “has not been systematically reviewed, and remains unclear due to substantial biases in many studies.” So we’re just supposed to accept that “male circumcision does no permanent harm”? Why? I don’t remember learning that the scientific method says we may assume whatever is necessary for our argument in the absence of reliable data, bolstered because someone told a joke once.

Lane showed his full (2012) commitment to SCIENCE! rather than science in the last quoted paragraph. If the foreskin is erogenous, why did he argue that removing it permanently does “no permanent harm”? More to the point, if someone sliced up my leg with a razor, leaving scars, would he say I’m not mutilated because I can still walk? His argument was nonsense, including the implication that the foreskin is not part of the genitals.

I wonder if Mr. Lane would reconsider his misguided 2012 analysis today with a side order of humility previously absent. He should.

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There are more problems with Lane’s 2012 essay than what I criticize here. He was wrong from start-to-finish in that essay.



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