Author: Maxwell Costich

From Vice to Virtue: How We Confront Amoral Experimentation

In reading both Medical Apartheid and Home, readers are confronted with a slew of injustices committed against African-Americans. Perhaps none are as gruesome and distressing as the experimentation in female anatomy carried out by white physicians against unwilling black victims. In her novel, Home, Toni Morrison shows us one such grim scene through the eyes of Frank as he looks upon his nearly dead sister, an unwilling victim of “research.” Her life and death struggle is made all the more immediate through Franks calculated approach to helping her, checking for pulse, breathing, and temperature with the familiarity of one who knows things about the dead. (Morrison, 111) However, this scene pales in comparison to the one painted by Harriet A. Washington in describing the exploits of Dr. James Marion Sims. Here, readers are forced to imagine the pain and terror helpless, enslaved women went through under his knife. The details of vesicovaginal fistula are particularly graphic, as are the descriptions of Dr. Sims carving the vaginal region and sewing it up, only to force it open once more as physicians gazed in awe while slaves screamed. (Washington, 64-65)

This brings me to the main argument of this blog. Although this was only one example of abuse, it is symptomatic of early research in the field of Gynecology. Although this may seem strange coming from a male, gynecology has played an important role in my family. Both of my parents are Obstetrician/Gynecologists and although this makes an impartial view of their work impossible, I can attest to the good they have done. Are town is not large and few days go by without strangers thanking my parents for delivering their children or helping them through surgical intervention. It is distressing to learn just how much of my parents field of practice was built upon the pain and brutalization of voiceless women. It brings to question how exactly we can square the good that has come from medical research with the inhumane methods it was derived from? The same question has been raised across history and is well documented in books and media sources, not least of all in critically acclaimed television series like Star Trek: Voyager and games like Mass Effect. My own view on the subject is that such practices are barbaric and should be left in the past, especially with advances in technology making research less invasive and scaring. However, the hardest question is often what to do with research obtained through these immoral means. Some advocate its destruction to discourage others from advancing science at the cost of human life and suffering. I disagree. People willing to sacrifice their humanity for scientific gain are unlikely to be concerned with what others think of their methods. Regardless, there may always be wicked people willing to profit off the suffering of others. Unfortunately this seems to be part of the darker side of human nature. Destroying such research would guarantee that the victims of experimentation died in vain, that nothing good came of their suffering. People who commit these acts should be punished to the full extent of the law for it is truly a crime against humanity, but punishing their victims with obscurity and pointless suffering is an insult. I’m curious as to what other people think? Feel free to comment or bring it up in class.

Why I Fear False Prophets

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance”

In learning more about the disgusting history of racism in America, the above quote by George Bernard Shaw springs to mind. Considering the gruesome and inhumane pseudo-scientific practices that governed the eugenics movement in this country before and after the civil war, I find the wisdom of his words hard to deny. As a member of a proud, medically-minded community here at Geneseo, the abuses of those in our chosen field are particularly hard to hear about. However, to turn away from the topic in disgust and simply ignore the actions of past physicians would only make us complicate in their crimes. What disturbs me most is that those who participated in the abuses of African-American men and women did not do so secretly to hide their shame from the world, but did so openly without consequence, often to the approval of their fellow White citizens who saw them as saviors and their “patients” as little more than laboratory specimens.

The lesson we can all learn from these atrocities is just how devastating false science can be in its destructive potential. Long accused of being superstitious and irrational in their iatrophobia, the history of abuses against African-Americans gives credibility to such beliefs, ironically contributing in part to the poorer health outcomes among African-American populations. Even today, one does not have to look far in America to find dubious scientific claims being treated like religious dogma. The Anti-Vaccer movement, for example, continues to site disproved evidence concerning the link between vaccines and autism while well-meaning but poorly informed people continuously raise concerns of genetically modified food long put to rest by the scientific community.

Perhaps the worst crime committed by false science is that it competes with and often undermines real scientific study. Science is an imperfect process; a method of research that is laborious, multi-faceted, and time-consuming. It does not lend itself to sweeping proposals or sensationalism. Though often fascinating in its discoveries, it is essentially boring and struggles to compete with the emotional and often vindicating results pseudo-science provides to its adherents. Worse still, it can often masquerade as genuine science for years, as seen with the eugenics movement and persistent scientific agreement on the inferiority of non-white races. This undermines the trust given by the public to scientific endeavors and in turn makes it harder to pursue actually discovery.

There is no one solution for confronting the issue of what Churchill called “perverted science.” Although I’m sure education will help prevent the persuasion of those more skeptical students, confronting the close-minded zealotry that often accompanies pseudo-science will be much harder to overcome. Skepticism towards science helped elevate the least qualified candidate in modern history to the office of the president and has begun seeping into our institutions and poisoning the way the world views us. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to be responsible in the use and dissemination of knowledge and to work so that truth will always prevail in the face of false prophets.