12 August 2013

Pain and politics

James Taranto accuses Popular Science magazine of having an agenda in a tweet that expanded into a longer article in the Wall Street Journal. This is relevant to me, because one of the two articles that he mentions is the Popular Science article in which this blog is mentioned.

When Popular Science published the post covering the Nature News article on crustacean pain, around the same time they published an article about the debate over fetal pain.

Elwood “concludes that crustaceans should be protected from the kind of ‘extreme procedures’ they are currently subjected to – things we wouldn’t do to mice, such as lobsters having their legs removed while still alive or crabs being kept tightly bound for days before being sold.”

But McDonough insists no such precautions are due in the case of unborn human beings. Do you think maybe the guys at Popular Science have an agenda?

On the crustacean pain piece, Taranto says the evidence “sounds highly equivocal.” I agree with this. (This is why I like the Popular Science piece: because it does put in caveats like “probably” in the title. I like nuanced reporting.)

The research on crustacean pain is about five years old, and research takes time. If you look at any scientific debate five years in (especially in fields with few labs tackling the problem), it’s likely to sound equivocal.

In contrast, Taranto does not criticize the science reported in the fetal pain piece. I wager that the study of human development, including pain, has been going on considerably longer than five years, and there is probably more confidence about fetal pain than crustacean nociception. Rather than addressing any of the evidence in the piece, Taranto questions the credibility of the author, calling her a “feminist polemicist.” He suggests the magazine has an unspecified “agenda.” The suggestion of an “agenda” is strange given that the two articles are by two different authors.

An alternate hypothesis is that the people at Popular Science accurately reported the current state of the science in two distantly related scientific fields. Even if the author lacked credibility and the magazine did have an agenda, that does not automatically make the evidence presented in the articles wrong. 

External links

Shot to the heart
Fetal pain and neuroscience
Fetal Pain Is A Lie: How Phony Science Took Over The Abortion Debate

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