On Erhlich and Bongaarts at the Academies

I’ve written a piece on this controversy published today in Crux.

The piece in its full form may be downloaded from my Academia webpage.  I reproduce the first paragraphs here.

The Pontifical Academies Sail Towards a Perfect Storm

By Michael Pakaluk

At the end of this month (Feb 27 to Mar 1), the Pontifical Academy of Science (PAS) and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS), are doing something which they often do, namely, jointly hosting an international conference on a matter of great importance for “our common home,” in this case, the troubling problem of the extinction of species.

However, this time they are also doing something which they do not often do.   When the topic did not require presentations on human population growth per se, such sessions were nonetheless scheduled, and Paul Erhlich, author of The Population Bomb, and John Bongaarts, an executive of the Population Council, were invited to be the speakers.

Erhlich is not simply an unbalanced alarmist who even the New York Times has dismissed as unworthy of credit.  He has repeatedly and viciously attacked the Church and likened the Pope to a terrorist.  His published works suggest that his purpose in addressing the Academies will be to subvert Church teaching.

Bongaarts is something like the arch-propagandist of the abortion and contraception movement, the living analogue of Margaret Sanger.   Given that, as public tax records show, he is compensated $500,000 per year (squarely in the top 1%) for directing his organization’s efforts to fill sub-Saharan Africa with contraceptives, he is the very poster boy for the “ideological colonialism” that Pope Francis has decried.

The Academies cannot say in defense of these invitations that they are scientific bodies which have autonomy, and that these men are being invited for their scientific contributions.  Such a defense has merit only for speculative science.  Back in the 1940s, for instance, when meetings of PAS were concerned with such things as differential equations and newly discovered celestial objects, a scientist’s ethical views would have had little relevance.

But now the PAS holds meetings mainly on practical questions such as, recently, “Narcotics: Problems and Solutions of this Global Issue” and “Human Trafficking as Modern Slavery.”  In practical matters, science is not autonomous but must work within constraints of the right and the good.

In applied science, a person’s ethical commitments are displayed, not merely in the ends he adopts, but also in the means he is willing to contemplate.  Presumably a scientist who believed that sex slavery was a good thing for society (a misguided view about the end), would never be invited to address the Human Trafficking conference.  But neither would a scientist be invited, who thought the sex slavery problem could be solved by euthanizing the sex slaves (a misguided view about the means).

But Erhlich and Bongaarts do not simply contemplate abortion and contraception for population control: it is their main message.  To invite them, therefore, to speak specifically on the practical question of population, is implicitly to embrace their ethical commitments.