When GOP Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin said in an interview last month that rape victims rarely become pregnant because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he wasn’t just insulting women. He was insulting science.
Akin is merely the latest in a long line of “true believers” who have tried to hijack, pervert or crush science in order to protect extreme ideological or religious agendas. It’s a sordid history that stretches from recent scientific breakthroughs in climate change, reproductive biology and sexuality back to Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.
Science has two attributes which ideologues and religious extremists find threatening – curiosity and humility.
Curiosity relentlessly drives scientists to discover truth through systematic observation of nature. Despite science’s spectacular successes in unlocking nature’s secrets, however, humility compels it to label even its most treasured discoveries as “theories,” perpetually subject to being proven or disproven by laboratory testing or prediction.
The same cannot be said for the smug certainty of those, like Akin, who believe that “truth” is revealed, self-evident and immutable. Evidently, they don’t have much use for the human brain, an extraordinarily complex organ that is endowed with far greater processing and analytical capacity than the world’s most powerful computers.
Akin, who attributed his pseudo-scientific assertion to unnamed “doctors,” later publicly apologized, claiming that he “mispoke” and acknowledging that rape can lead to pregnancy.
While he may truly regret the widespread outrage that greeted his remark and threatened his candidacy (causing even leaders of his own party to demand that he withdraw from the Senate race), Akin’s political record suggests that his words were right in line with his core beliefs.
Akin, after all, is a political warrior for the extreme wing of the right-to-life movement, whose ultimate goal is to outlaw all forms of abortion and contraception, without exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.
Such an unpalatable position needs a justification, and pseudo-science provides it. A woman impregnated during rape won’t be forced to carry an unwanted child to term against her will, because, if it’s a “legitimate” rape, her body will reject the fetus.
What’s not quite clear is just how this is supposed to happen. Perhaps Akin believes the immune system produces antibodies against forcible insemination, just as it does against invading pathogens.
Similar nonsense has pervaded the debate about climate change. U.S. Senator James Inhofe, a staunch defender of the oil and gas industry (a powerful interest in his home state of Oklahoma), has repeatedly dismissed the scientific theory of global warming from carbon emissions as a “hoax.”
Instead of distorting science to support his position, however, Inhofe simply chooses to deny all scientific evidence and invoke the Bible. As he told an interviewer on a Christian radio station earlier this year,”The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
Denial has also characterized the reaction of religious fundamentalists to scientific investigation of the causes of “sexual “preference” since researchers first announced in 1993 that they had found evidence of a genetic predisposition towards human homosexuality.
Fundamentalists cite scriptural passages that condemn homosexuality as sinful. But, since Christian doctrine also teaches that anyone that accepts God can be saved, groups like Exodus International insist that “homosexuals who desire to change can do so.”
Modern Western science can be traced back to the 16th century, when its early practitioners were forced to run the gauntlet of religious orthodoxy. The medieval Catholic Church adopted, as dogma, the earth-centered planetary model of Ptolemy, a second-century Greek-Roman astronomer, because it fit nicely those scriptural passages which described the earth as firmly placed and unmovable. The problem was that Ptolemy’s model could not explain certain observed anomalous planetary motions without adding complex, jerry-rigged features.
In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish-born church canon, published his revolutionary sun-centered (heliocentric) theory, which elegantly accounted for observed planetary motions without requiring the complexity of the Ptolemaic system. Careful not to offend the church though, Copernicus wrote that he was proposing his theory, not as an explanation of reality, but to “save appearances” -– that is, as an arbitrary mathematical model to facilitate astronomical calculations.
Galileo, one of Western Civilization’s greatest scientists, was less circumspect than Copernicus and, as a result, provoked a fierce ecclesiastical backlash. The Italian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher penned a treatise, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” espousing the heliocentric theory in 1632. As punishment for his candor, he was tried in Rome by the Inquisition, found guilty of heresy and sentenced to lifetime house arrest. The “Dialogue” was banned and further publication of his works forbidden.
English biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, first published in 1859 in “On the Origin of Species,” brought a full-throated cry of outrage from orthodox churchmen, who rejected any explanation of life’s creation and mutability which contradicted Genesis. That hostility persists to this day.
And, of course, no account of the perversion of science would be complete without at least a mention of the manner in which the Nazi regime forced German science to incorporate the ideology of Nordic racial purity into university teaching, biological research and medical practice from 1934 to 1945.
If anything can be learned from Congressman Akin’s ill advised comment, it’s that there’s no such thing as “legitimate rape” of either women or science.