Stem cell research

2007 02 05
Attacks on science

A nice editorial in the LA Times about how the Democratic Congress should bring science back to Washington. By Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal – includes a nice discussion of the attack on science from postmodernism and “theory” on the left which the Sokal hoax targeted, in addition to the much more serious recent attacks from religious conservatives and corporate interests on the right.

There’s one point about the religious conservatives’ bad effect on science that I found interesting. So, some of them want to stop the teaching of evolution, and some of them want to stop stem cell research. In the article these agenda items are mentioned as being of a piece, but I think they are quite different.

Trying to stop the teaching of evolution, and disputing the genuine scientific consensus about it with dirty tricks (eg fake scientists and fake science foundations) to sow doubt — about the existing strong evidence for evolution, and even about scientific rationality generally — in the minds of people with weak science backgrounds is wrong. It’s lying. It’s an illegitimate intrusion of religious belief into a question where religious belief has no place.

But trying to stop stem cell research is okay. It’s an ethical objection to a scientific program involving humans, and religious convictions have a proper role to play here in a public reflection on what research programs are okay to pursue. I think stem cell research is fine, but if someone has an honest moral objection to it — if their objection is not a disingenuous backdoor way to attack abortion rights — I think it’s appropriate that they try to stop it. (Provided they do this by having public hearings, writing to bioethical advisory boards, etc, rather than backroom dealing.) That is, it’s possible to attack a certain research program on religious grounds without attacking science. But the standard sort of attacks on evolution are attacks on science itself.

Another nice piece and a place to help here; via Metafilter.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 01 19
Now this post has a title

Posted by in: Stem cell research

Shorter NYT Op-Ed defending Bush’s stem cell research policy:

1. The stem cell question is whether embryos are “human subjects.”
2. No, actually, it’s about whether embryos are persons, with “a right to life”.
3. While many advocates of embryo-destroying research insist that embryos are not persons, since they are soooo different from the rest of us, “surely America has learned the hard way not to assign human worth by appearances.”
4. So maybe embryos are persons, with moral worth equal to that of grown-ups, and therefore possess a right to life.
5. But then again, it’s downright hard to make the case that even grown-ups are equal in the substantive sense that could ground a strong right to life. Look at all those pussies and old farts and tell me it’s obvious they are equal to you and me.
6. Indeed, it is not only these observations about nature that lead us to question some people’s moral worth; we are also lead to question it “by our own humanitarian impulses”, i.e. the impulses that lead us to destroy embryos.
7. Whoa Nelly! This is some heavy shit. What if our good, humanitarian intentions turn us into Nazis?
8. Therefore, better follow Bush’s lead and avoid embryonic stem cell research.

As simple as this article is, it starts off a lot better than many discussions of this and related (e.g. abortion) topics. But step 5 is a farce. While the author is right that the question of moral worth is made difficult by the existence of severe natural differences, nothing is made of the fact that our intuitions run strongly against permitting the sorts of acts that would be made permissible by a moral theory that counted the weak and the old as somehow less morally worthy of a “right to life.” Maybe, just maybe, if we are ready to reject the implications, we are/should be ready to reject the supposition that leads to them.

But the biggest gap in all of this lies with 6 and the move to 7. If it is indeed our “humanitarian” impulses that lead us to endorse embryonic stem cell research, isn’t this some evidence to think that embryos and grown-ups have different moral worth/moral entitlements after all? Answer: Yes, yes it is.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 03 29
Star Trek as a source of moral insight

Lot of people seem to be giggling about a high-profile intersection of biomedical ethics and Star Trek. Matthew Yglesias, who should know better, is representative here (omitting the hyperlinks in the original):

. . . highlighting in particular this post which reveals (really) that at least one member of the President’s Bioethics Council (really) came to the view that “that cloning and embryonic stem cell research are evil . . . in part, by watching Star Trek.” Really. Personally, I’m more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, but I’d really prefer not to launch a dispute on the topic. My hope would be that we can all agree this is perhaps not the soundest method of formulating bioethics policy. Although, considering the low knowledge level of the White House’s in-house Social Security expert I suppose we’ll take what we can get. Ironically, while the Trekkie bioethicist is not a scientist, the Social Security expert is not an economist but . . . a chemist. I suppose it’s very pointy-headed elite of me to think that people should be basing their views on actual knowledge, but that’s just what you get.

Well, I’ve never had much time for Star Trek, any generation, to be honest. But I don’t see what is wrong with coming to a view in part by watching Star Trek. We’re talking about a Bush appointee, I think, so you never know. The original story makes her sound like a real flake. But it isn’t as though she’s defending her view by an appeal to the authority of Star Trek or that the view is even wholly the result of reflecting on Star Trek. Instead, as far as I can tell, all we have is a slightly embarrassing revelation that someone prominent was moved by a bit of pop culture to think more deeply about a subject, or to see it in a way that she hadn’t previously. I can’t see anything wrong with that.

In the last decade or so, I’ve spent an awful lot of time reading high-falutin’ philosophical material on ethics. I’ve learned a lot from it, but I’ve also noticed that some embarrassingly non-philosophical sources can yield insights into philosophical topics. The first thing that comes to mind is the Lord of the Rings, and in particular the view that both Gandalf, and eventually Frodo, take of Gollum. For some reason that stuff made a deeper impression on me than a lot of straight-up philosophical wonkery. And – sorry! – my official view is that Lord of the Rings is fun stuff, but basically silly and cheesy.

. . . On the other hand, every word of this post by Yglesias is gold.

Howls of outrage (7)

2005 02 19
Astonishing Discovery Renders Stem Cell Dispute Moot

Posted by in: Stem cell research

Details at Hubris.

What an exciting day for science!

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