Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More Handwringing

Of Obama's decision to reverse Bush's ban on federal funding for stem cell research, Yuval Levin has this to say:

...legitimate dispute underlies the stem cell debate. But that is not the ground on which the president made his case yesterday. He argued that to deny free rein to stem cell science is to ignore and reject the promise of science as such. In a barely concealed swipe at his predecessor, he pledged that his administration would "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

The executive order Obama signed omits any mention of ethical debate. The entirety of the case it makes for itself is that "advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by Federal funds." And while Obama promised that his policy would be bound by ethical guidelines, he left it to the scientists of the National Institutes of Health to define the rules. The issue, he suggested, is a matter of science, not politics.

But science policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. In science policy, science informs, but politics governs, and rightly so.

There are, of course, different ways for politics to exert authority over science. To distort or hide unwelcome facts is surely illegitimate. But to weigh facts against societal priorities -- economic, political and ethical -- in making decisions is the very definition of policymakers' duty. And to govern the practice of scientific techniques that threaten to violate important moral boundaries is not only legitimate but in some cases essential.

Levin focuses on Obama's stem cell announcement, but what he says he's most upset about is this idea that science alone will dictate policy-making in the Obama administration. But where is the evidence for this? That Obama entirely avoids engaging in an ethical debate over the morality of stem cell research; Levin offers us this quote from when Obama was still serving in the Senate: "...the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first." To Levin this is succumbing to the "technocratic temptation", to let scientific experts make decisions that ought properly to be made via the democratic process.

I'm trying not to split hairs too finely here, but it seems to me that Obama has made an ethical determination, as indicated by that prior statement, and with this decision, to drop the ban on stem cell research; the decision being that there is no ethical debate to be had about the morality of funding such research. Levin says: "Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy." But how is it not democratic for Obama to express this opinion prior to his election, be elected, and then enact his expressed opinion into law? Science has not over-ruled that democratic process; science has been affirmed by the democratic process. And I do not see how referring the determination of ethical guidelines for this research to a scientific organization like the National Institutes for Health is a subversion of the democratic process either. Scientists and ethicists draw up research guidelines all of the time, and if people object they may-in the form of Congress-rewrite those guidelines. But society has spoken broadly that this funding is acceptable.

Robert George and Eric Cohen are more direct, if also more disingenuous. They think that stem cell research will result in the deliberate creation and destruction of embryos that are the equivalent of living persons, and they're not happy about it:

First, the Obama policy is itself blatantly political. It is red meat to his Bush-hating base, yet pays no more than lip service to recent scientific breakthroughs that make possible the production of cells that are biologically equivalent to embryonic stem cells without the need to create or kill human embryos. Inexplicably -- apart from political motivations -- Mr. Obama revoked not only the Bush restrictions on embryo destructive research funding, but also the 2007 executive order that encourages the National Institutes of Health to explore non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells.

At least they give Obama credit for making a "political" and not merely scientific and technocratic decision (at least at first.) That said, the idea that this is "red meat" for the base is absurd. In a Gallup Poll conducted at the end of last month, 52% of respondents said that the government should either ease restrictions on funding for stem cell research, or lift restrictions altogether. 52% of the country is hardly a "base"; rather, it demonstrates that a lifting of the ban has broad support. But following all that, they do attack the decision for being "anti-democratic":

Second and more fundamentally, the claim about taking politics out of science is in the deepest sense antidemocratic. The question of whether to destroy human embryos for research purposes is not fundamentally a scientific question; it is a moral and civic question about the proper uses, ambitions and limits of science. It is a question about how we will treat members of the human family at the very dawn of life; about our willingness to seek alternative paths to medical progress that respect human dignity.

For those who believe in the highest ideals of deliberative democracy, and those who believe we mistreat the most vulnerable human lives at our own moral peril, Mr. Obama's claim of "taking politics out of science" should be lamented, not celebrated.

Now obviously, what Obama was referring to with his desire to take the politics out of science, was the Bush administration's well known penchant for making even scientific decisions political. If federal agencies produced information indicating that global warming was both real and man-made, that information was to be suppressed to one extent or another. Abstinence-only sex education was held paramount, even though research indicates that it is less effective than sex education that teaches about safe sex. This is the sort of thing that Cohen and George seem to favor; the suppression of legitimate scientific inquiry and the politicization of scientific data to meet already agreed upon policy goals. But how is it more democratic to keep Americans ignorant, or unaware, or to hide scientific data that is unfavorable to powerful political interests even if it would be useful to Americans as a whole?

This argument is of course disingenuous and ridiculous. Cohen and George want the blatant politicization of science; they want stem cell research to be unfunded by the federal government even though most people desire it to some extent because they disagree with it, and their moral disapproval should be good enough for you because they're right about embryos and you're not. To offer some token and vacuous appreciation for the "stem-cell debate" at the end of their column, a debate they would continue to short-circuit if they were at all able to do so, is absurd.

Obama has announced a decision that will hopefully lead to scientific advances that will improve the lives of countless millions or billions the world over. He has announced that scientific inquiry will no longer be suppressed or perverted to meet moralistic policy goals. Americans are broadly supportive of this approach. This isn't anti-democratic; it's democracy at work.

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