[Published in Joseph W. Koterski (ed.), Proceedings of the Conference: Life and Learning IV (New York: Fordham University Press, 1995, pp. 193-215].

Academic Fraud and Conceptual Transfer in Bioethics:
Abortion, Human Embryo Research and Psychiatric Research

Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D
Published in Joseph W. Koterski (ed.)
Proceedings of the Conference: Life and Learning IV
New York: Fordham University Press, 1995,
pp. 193-215
Copyright: June 1994
Reproduced with permission

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" … there has emerged a phenomenon unknown to antiquity that permeates our modern society so completely that its ubiquity scarcely leaves us any room to see it at all: the prohibition of questioning … We are confronted here with persons who know that, and why, their opinions cannot stand up under critical analysis and who therefore make the prohibition of the examination of their premise part of their dogma … The questions of the "individual man" are cut off by the ukase of the speculator who will not permit his construct to be disturbed."(emphasis added)

Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism

I. Introduction

I am confident that Voegelin's insights1  strike a cord with many in pro-life, but they are probably especially provocative to those of us in academia. In concert with my beleaguered past as an inveterate questioner, and in the spirit of true academic freedom, several questions loom which must be posed and actively addressed in the interests of academia itself. My concern is academic fraud and the harm that it has already engendered. It is also about "political correctness", and how it can be conducive to academic fraud. Who bears the responsibility and accountability for the concrete harm that has been generated?

II. Is there such a thing as "academic fraud"?

Scientific fraud, even by accounts of those within the field, is running rampant.2  It destroys the integrity of those very fields of science, and further erodes the public trust in the scientific enterprise itself. Scientific fraud fundamentally confuses and distorts our own perceptions of ourselves and of our world. But worse, it is the agent of concrete harm when applied to millions of innocent human beings, to our already-fragile environment and to public policy considerations. Who is responsible for this scientific fraud and harm? And who is accountable for it? Are there any validly equivalent phenomena in other areas of academia?

"Fraud" is not to be predicated of scientists only. Several recent books and articles, detailing the intellectual and political woes of our elementary, secondary and university educational systems, attest to the fact that "academic fraud" is not restricted to the field of science.3  Is academic fraud in other fields also in the process of destroying those affected academic fields? Is it engendering more and more public distrust in the very enterprise of academia itself? Does it also confuse and distort our own perceptions of ourselves and of our world? And when it is applied, does it also cause concrete harm? Who is responsible for this "other" academic fraud? And who is accountable for it?

An anticipated retort to such questions would understandably come in the guise of "academic freedom". Academia requires the "free" expression of opinions and ideas - politically correct and otherwise. But an important distinction is being lost. What is presently missing in this equation is the "otherwise". If only "political correctness" is allowed to constitute the "free exchange of ideas", then there is not "free" exchange of ideas at all - only pompous propaganda. And if only fallacious and fabricated ideas constitute the "dialogue", then there is no true dialogue at all - only self-aggrandizing soliloquies. "Academic freedom" requires both free expression and free dialogue - but it also requires that all of these ideas and theories be vigorously attacked, defended and evaluated -a game in which not every idea or theory can win. -- Unless, of course, defenders of the "otherwise" are prohibited from questioning these "constructs".

In this pluralistic society and age of relativism, subjectivism and "political correctness", the increased tendency (and often the imperative) is to be "tolerant" of a diversity of opinions. As educators, our profession demands foremost the respect that is due to each student that comes under our influence. We know that students come from a variety of cultural, social and familial backgrounds; that they are in uneven stages of maturity, abilities, experience and preparation; and that great care and prudence is demanded in our teaching relationships and interactions with them. But in the process of respecting their diversity of opinions, do we in fact actually harm them - and our colleagues and institutions - if we are so overly sensitive (or cowardly) that we resort to the fabrication and falsification of our subject matters, and selectively use only "politically correct" materials in our teaching efforts?

III. Has "sensitivity" training become a source of fraud and harm?

Where are the limits or boundaries of our moral and professional responsibilities as "sensitive" educators? To what extent do we actually harm our students, colleagues and institutions by compromising the truth, in any of its forms - and with it, true academic freedom - for the purpose of not hurting a student's or colleagues' "feelings" or "opinions" or cultural-bound ideologies? How far are we willing to go to be collegial, reasonable, fair, gracious, understanding, generous and loving in heart and spirit, mature and "with it"? And at what point does being overly sensitive (or cowardly) become unethical? Is it "mature" and "reasonable" to knowingly teach the subject matter of a course incorrectly - or to be silent when we know it is - in order to be "sensitive"? Given that some courses lend themselves to an "objective" subject matter more so than others - where is the dividing line between fact and fantasy in teaching the subject matter of any given field? Are we not suppose to teach something about our subject matter because it might offend someone? Or because our student evaluations might be lower?

For example, if there were students in my ethics class who were from a culture or a community in which cannibalism was taught and practiced, should I refrain from presenting critiques of their sincerely-held beliefs about cannibalism because it would embarrass or anger them? Should I teach that cannibalism is ethically acceptable - or at least as ethically acceptable as any other ethical position? If there were students in my ethics class who were child molesters or thieves, should I present material that disagrees with their opinion that molesting children or stealing the property of others is ethically acceptable - or should I teach that it is just as acceptable as any other strongly held belief or opinion? Should I "modify" ethicists' actual historical theories to "make" them say what would be considered "politically correct" today? Should I leave out certain ethical theories (or certain parts of ethical theories) because they might make some students uneasy? Isn't that really academic fraud?

In order no to offend anyone in my metaphysics class, should I purposely reword, transliterate or incorrectly quote or interpret Plato's, Aristotle's, Descartes' or Kant's treatises and theories to make them more "palatable" or less "offensive" to my students or colleagues who disagree with those philosophers' theories? I was recently interviewed for a position to teach what I am now teaching -the history of philosophy. I was directed to teach only Plato, Plotinus - and then skip to Descartes and Hume - and to please leave out the pre-Socratics, Aristotle and all of the medieval philosophers (especially Thomas Aquinas) - because the students (they thought) would find it "boring"! Is leaving out 900 years of the history of philosophy in a history of philosophy course really a bad case of "political correctness" - or, more harshly, academic fraud? Has "political correctness" really become co-extensive with academic fraud?

Would deliberately modifying those philosophical texts be any less fraud than, say, deliberately modifying and falsifying established scientific texts? What if a chemistry professor taught students that there were only 12 elements in the periodic chart; or a music professor taught students that there were only 4 piano keys in an octave, or that Beehoven's fifth symphony was really his first, etc. Isn't that academic fraud? If chemists and biologists are now held professionally and legally accountable for negligently misinterpreting or deliberately producing fraudulent and incorrect data and theories - why shouldn't other academics be held equally accountable for their own brand of academic fraud?

As "politically incorrect" as this may sound, not all translations of historical works are equal, and not all interpretations of those works are valid. In fact, not all ideas and theories - historical or contemporary - are equally valid or sound.4  Some ideas and theories match reality and some do not. Some can be successfully defended, and some can not. And ideas and theories have concrete consequence. When they are based on the subject matter of a field which has been abjectly politicized, the damage in terms of valid and sound knowledge is alone sufficient for concern.5  When they are also applied 6  to innocent and unsuspecting human beings, institutions and societies, the negative impact of inaccurate, indefensible and politicized ideas and theories can be long-term and cause devastating personal, familial, academic, institutional, social and cultural damage. Perhaps you fervently want to believe that the world is composed of monads or muons or juggleskoots - you are certainly "free" to think whatever ideas you wish. But you are not necessarily "free" to apply them, or to put them into action. Much less should our public policies be based on them.

IV. Is there discrimination against pro-life faculty?

I also question if in the academy more and more pressure is being brought to bear on "pro-life" - or "politically incorrect" - faculty members to modify, modulate, leave out or even deliberately after that part of their subject matters which in any way is offensive to the pro-choice (read: pluralistic or multi-cultural) belief-systems of students and colleagues alike. If so, is resistance met with isolation, loss of friends, tenure and grants - and low student evaluations? But of more concern than being "politically correct", or of hurting someone's feelings, educators need to be at least as concerned about the inevitable decay of academic standards (and with it the academy itself), and the real harm that consequentially plays out.

Again, an important distinction has been lost. Being pro-life should not equate with insensitivity or with academic incompetence. If educational materials are found to be fraudulent, or course contents found to be no more than worthless collections of intellectual ramblings based on historically or factually incorrect theses, any educator and any institution has the moral and professional responsibility to fairly address these problems.

Yet it is abundantly clear that any such attempts by pro-life educators to factually and historically correct educational materials are often just rejected out of hand as being "emotional" and "religious-based, right-wing radical ploys". These educators are effectively barred from any further access to the system, and then severely discriminated against for even raising these questions in the first place. Shades of Voegelin!

No official academic vehicle of recourse is now effective or available to these pro-life educators. But judging from the hundreds of personal accounts I have received over the last several years, the situation is so acute that it will probably soon force these educators to turn to the law for justice and redress in current employment practices in academia and research.

One would think that educators and educational institutions would be more concerned about incorrect facts and theories. One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that abstract theories and ideas - especially if they are really incorrect - have serious and very real concrete consequences when applied. Furthermore, like the domino effect, incorrect theories and ideas (or facts) once "set in concrete" in one field can then be transferred to other fields and harmfully applied - a phenomenon I will call "conceptual transfer". I will present briefly three short examples from my own academic experiences in science and bioethics, to briefly demonstrate how the concept of "personhood", already so successfully set in the abortion debates by academia, is transferable and applicable to the issues of human embryo research and psychiatric research. Considerable concrete harm is the consequence.

V. "Personhood" in the abortion debates

The current concept of "fetal personhood" was established over a period of about 20 years, primarily through the efforts of "bioethicists" who sought to combine some scientific claim about embryogenesis with some philosophical (or theological) theory of "personhood". These theories claim that real "personhood" (and therefore real ethical and legal rights and protections) do not begin until some embryological marker event during embryogenesis. Thus the concept denotes "delayed personhood" - and thus abortion is ethically permissible up to some selected biological marker event.

But how valid or sound are these theories of "delayed personhood"? By what criteria are they determined to be true or false? In analyzing over 23 "representative" arguments for "delayed personhood", I found that in virtually all 23 arguments the science used was objectively incorrect, the philosophy used was historically incorrect or theoretically indefensible, and that none of the conclusions even followed logically from their premises. Just the statistical odds of this happening by chance are mind-boggling. All of this I have presented in great detail to this conference before.7 

A. Fake science

How is it possible that such massive scientific mis-information has been flowing from our scholarly and academic institutions for so many years - without correction? Citing just one example, the blatant and purposeful use of incorrect "human" embryology (which was, in fact, amphibian embryology) has been taught in academia for over 15 years in bioethics courses, bioethics conferences, incorporated into bioethics textbooks and computer software - even filed in the MEDLINE computer searches of the National Library of Medicine under BIOETHICSLINE, and thus literally circulated around the world. Clifford Grobstein.8  the embryologist most responsible for this (who is not even a human embryologist) has recently acknowledged on more than one occasion that his "human" embryology was and is incorrect. His response was simply: "But so what - what's the big deal?"

The "big deal" - aside from being scientific fraud - is that the moral and legal status of the early human embryo and fetus in those debates has been based on that wrong "human" embryology. For many years theologian Richard McCormick9  has published his arguments for "delayed personhood" based on this science. For many years lawyer John RobertsonRobertson10  has published his arguments for the status of human embryos and fetuses as property (and has subsequently won court battles), quoting Grobstein's "science" virtually for pages in his legal publications and briefs. Mountains of volumes of similar examples of incorrect science have been pumped into the academic and political systems, and are bulging the shelves of our university libraries.

Indeed, such grossly incorrect science has permeated our highest courts since Roe v Wade (1973). In that watershed decision, the Supreme Court contended that there was no scientific or medical consensus as to when the life of a human begins. That was scientifically false then, and is scientifically false now. In fact, the U.S. Senate held hearings shortly after their decision, to determine if in fact there really was such a consensus. After hearing scientific and medical testimony from around the world, it was incontrovertibly determined that there was, indeed, a scientific and medical consensus that the life of a human being begins at fertilization. But, it was countered, women now had a constitutional right to privacy to deal with their pregnancies; the scientific and medical consensus was not an issue any more.

Again, Dr. C. Ward Kischer,11  who has been teaching human embryology for over 30 years, researched the scientific credentials of the 167 "scientists" who authored an amicus curiae brief in support of the Webster case and its "scientific" assumptions of "delayed personhood". Of the 167 scientists, only 31 could even be classified as developmental biologists, and only one of those was credentialed in embryology per se - and he was not even a human embryologist. Does the Supreme Court not care about the scientific veracity of the amicus briefs which are presented to them by scientific "experts", on which they ground so many of their important and far-reaching decisions? Is the Supreme Court basing its decisions on "political correctness", or on the objectively correct science, the Constitution and the laws of this land? The Supreme Court has refused to even hear the correct scientific arguments,12  for if they did, they would have to reverse the Roe decision. And the women in this country are not yet "ready to hear the truth".

B. Weird philosophy

The philosophy used in these debates is just as bad. It is either grossly historically inaccurate, or a reductio ad rationalism or empiricism (the orphaned and embarrassing historical offshoots of Descartes' unworkable metaphysics, epistemology and anthropology).13  The definitions of "personhood" inherent in these philosophical systems contain an inherent mind/body split. In short, there is no interaction possible - either theoretically or concretely - between the mind and the body which are separated from each other. Thus they are both theoretically and practically untenable and unworkable - a fact amazingly lost on many contemporary "expert" philosophers. Hence either "rational attributes" (autonomy, willing, loving, interacting with the world around one, etc., from rationalism) and/or "sentience" (the ability to feel pain and pleasure, from empiricism) have now become the currently fashionable criteria for "personhood".

The concrete practical results of using these theoretically deficient theories were systematically inevitable. Since empirically we know that full "rational attributes" and full "sentience" are not present until well after birth, the infanticide of normal healthy human infants is considered morally permissible by more than just a few contemporary academics. Peter Singer, of Monash University in Australia, founder of "animal rights" philosophy, and now president of the International Bioethics Association, deduced correctly (although from false premises) when he wrote many years ago:

"I have argued that the life of a fetus is of no greater value than the life of a non-human animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc., and that since no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life as a person. Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many nonhuman animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee."14  (emphasis added)

From selective bits and pieces of the historic systems of rationalism and empiricism have also evolved the present bioethics principles of autonomy, justice, beneficence and non-maleficence - otherwise known as "the Georgetown mantra" of bioethics principles, or the Belmont principles. These principles have virtually defined the field of bioethics since its inception. Most bioethics textbooks, conferences, courses and think tanks - world-wide - have been exclusively based on them. More than considerable numbers of medical, healthcare and research policies and decisions - as well as local, state, national and international regulations and guidelines - have been as well.

Yet these bioethics principles are fundamentally fraudulent.15  Even Albert Jonsen,16  one of the several originators of these principles during the 1975 National Commission, related recently that in order to address our pluralistic society, the few members of that commission who were really philosophers decided to abandon their traditional philosophical training and discipline in the search for more pluralistically-pleasing principles. At bottom these new principles, he implies, were basically made up (one might say, fabricated) from bits and pieces of Kant and Mill, with a smattering of Rawls mixed in. One has to seriously question the credentials of these "philosophers" to begin with, if they saw in advance no theoretical problems in combining separate bits and pieces of different and contradictory philosophical systems, and expected that such "mental constructs" could be philosophically valid, sound or defensible.

For a long time there has existed an uneasiness and ambivalence toward these principles from real philosophers as well as from real practitioners in the field who were "expected" to apply them. Early attempts to constructively criticize or correct them were perceived by the bioethics gurus in almost paranoiac fashion as sabotage, and effectively barred. Or they were dismissed by professionals, even within pro-life, as too complicated and technical, too focused on the "baby" and not enough on the "mother", "silly", professionally incompetent or irrelevant. But lately there has been a rising tide of articles and books, both here and abroad, which are openly and severely critical of these principles and of their application. Even Daniel CallahanCallahan17  himself, founder and president of the Hastings Center, the oldest bioethics think tank, has recently published an article in which he frankly admits the abject failure of these bioethics principles. His "new" solution is to be found in "communitarianism" (which could easily be "molded" into utilitarianism), and he ends with the consoling words that this should keep bioethicists employed for at least the next 25 years! Some tribute to the integrity and motives of the architects of these bioethics principles, which have reigned supreme in almost totalitaran fashion for over 20 years.

How did the newly created field of bioethics manage to take virtual control of so many related fields in so short a time? How could such butchering of sound science and of traditional historical philosophical systems, and the pure fabrication of both theoretically and practically indefensible theories, have taken place right before our eyes - even "in our face", one might say? With the aid of willing "scientists", "bioethicists", "philosophers", "theologians" and "public policy makers" - outside and inside pro-life - "delayed personhood" has consequently been simply declared to begin at some arbitrarily designated embryological point during embryogenesis. Who in bioethics is responsible and accountable for the immeasurable arm which has resulted from the applications of these "theories", which were based directly on now-admittedly fake science and philosophically untenable and unworkable bioethics principles? No one? No sanctions? No corrections? Just a fascinating, stimulating and harmless "intellectual exercise" or amusing "thought experiment"?

These theories have been allowed to be perpetuated for so long now, that they have become ingrained in the academy as well as in our mainstream American culture. The "dumbing"and the "numbing" of America is well on its way. Why haven't more competent scientists and philosophers spoken out?

Perhaps they are silent because they would loose their friends, jobs, tenures or grants. Or maybe it is because their student ratings would go down, since it would embarrass students who, e.g., have innocently procured abortions, thinking that it was justifiable because the early human embryo or fetus is just a blob of tissues, and not a real "person" yet? Has there been no real harm to the students, faculty, educational institutions - and to our society in general - from these academically engendered and incorrect theories of "delayed personhood"? Is there no real responsibility and accountability for the perpetuation of these fake "theories" in the academy by "professional" educators, theories which are so transparently and obviously incorrect and inaccurate? Haven't we been here before?

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