Is Everything that Scientists say about the Unborn Scientific?

This past week, I received my e-mail edition of World Science. I enjoy reading this popularizer of science stories, and if you could go back and search my blog entries you would find that many of my posts about science arose from something that I found on this website.

But as a popularizer of science, I find that the website falls victim to the same problem other science popularizers such as Carl Sagan have fallen victim: making unsupportable claims when the evidence does not fully support (or may even counter) my world view. In World Science, I regularly find stories making assertions as if they are supported scientific findings that are either unsupported or inadequately demonstrated to be supported. In fact, in many cases the claims seem to be not only unsupported but incapable of being supported.

Take, as an example, a very interesting story entitled Facial expressions reported to develop before birth. As a person who supports the right to life of the unborn, I am always interested in stories that lend support for the proposition that the unborn exhibit characteristics while are still in the womb that are normally associated with children following birth. This story seems to fall in that line when it begins:

Babies in the womb develop a range of facial movements in which one can identify facial expressions such as laughter and crying, researchers say.

“This is a new and fascinating insight into the remarkable process of fetal development. This research has for the first time demonstrated that in healthy fetuses there is a developmental progression from simple to complex facial movements, preparing the fetus for life post-birth,” said Brian Francis of Lancaster University, U.K., one of the researchers.

Wow. Here we have scientists observing that the unborn children in the womb are exhibiting what appears to be laughter and crying. How early are these facial expressions that we associate with laughing and crying appearing? According to the article,

In a new report, the scientists present images of what they call facial expressions developing between 24 to 36 weeks gestation. They examined videotapes of developing fetuses using so-called 4D ultrasound machines.

Fetuses at 24 weeks could move one facial muscle at a time, such as stretching the lips or opening the mouth, the researchers said. By 35 weeks, fetuses combined different facial muscle movements, combining for example lip stretch and eyebrow-lowering. Thus by birth the baby has already developed the facial movements to accompany crying and laughing, the investigators said.

“We have found so much more than we expected. We knew that the baby blinks before birth and that some research has identified scowling before birth. However in this study for the first time we have developed a method of coding and analysis which allows us to objectively trace the increasing complexity of movements over time which results in recognizable facial expressions,” said Nadja Reissland from Durham University, U.K., another of the scientists.

Okay, so from as early as 24 weeks, we are seeing the unborn child beginning to show facial expressions associated with laughing or crying. By 35 weeks, the expressions have developed to the point where it is clear that the child is laughing or crying in the womb. This would seem to be powerful evidence that the baby while still in the womb is experiencing emotions that we associate with sentient beings. The obvious conclusion is that the child seems to be laughing because the child is laughing while in the womb. The child seems to be crying because the child is crying while still in the womb.

Not so fast, says World Science. The article adds the following sentence:

[The researchers] claim the movements develop before the baby feels emotion, just as a baby practises breathing movements in the uterus even before it has drawn a breath.

So here we have it: a single sentence that shoots down the idea that the pre-born child is actually laughing when the he/she appears to be laughing. No real laughter here, says the scientist, just a developmental reaction that is preparing the child to be able to laugh one he/she is born and actually able to laugh.

I have one question: how do they know this? How do they know that the facial expressions that appear to be laughing is not really laughing? How do they know that the child's facial expressions that seem to show that the unborn child might feel something tickling him/her is only a developmental reaction?

There is no answer. In fact, other than the comparison to the fact that the pre-born child appears to "practice" breathing movements prior to breathing -- a fact that, unlike the claim being applied to the appearance of laughter and crying, is well supported because it is certainly the case that the child cannot be breathing in the womb -- there is nothing that supports this bald assertion. In fact, it appears that this language is being added for only one reason: to try to keep people from arriving at the obvious conclusion that the pre-born child experiences emotions that would lead to laughter and crying from as early as 24 weeks. In other words, the unsupported assertion appears to be added by the researchers not because scientific evidence leads one to that conclusion, but only because the researchers or the editors wanted to add something that would support a pre-determined world view, i.e., that the unborn child could not possibly be feeling emotions because that would lead to the conclusion that it is fully human before birth.

I guess I am asking too much when I ask for my science news to actually report only supported science.


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