Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Politics Trumps Facts In Editorial Hostile To Administration

The title of this post is meant to poke a bit of fun at an editorial by one Cynthia Tucker you can find here on Yahoo! News, which is entitled "POLITICS TRUMPS FACTS IN ADMINISTRATION HOSTILE TO SCIENCE". I don't often post on things like this, but I just saw this and these kinds of things really annoy me, whether it's coming from the Left or the Right. Now, granted, some of the stuff she says here is, if true, probably damaging and might be a case of politics "trumping facts" or "trumping the hard facts of science", whatever that's supposed to mean. But by no means all. In fact, the stuff that does seem damaging might even be seen as cases of "facts" of science trumping "facts" of science - opinions of some scientists (those who dissent from the views of others on global warming, for instance) trumping those of others. In such a case, it might even be charitable to interpret the administration as shaping its political views to the views of those scientists it treats as more trustworthy or shapes it with the idea in mind that issue X is indeed controversial despite protestations to the contrary by the vocal majority. Not that that's probable, but it's at least conceivable - and this editorial does nothing to rule out such explanations but automatically demonizes the admistration.

"Unpersuaded by the broad scientific consensus that endorses evolution, the president has argued for teaching the phony science of so-called intelligent design, arguing that "both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about." "

That intelligent design is "phony science" is disputable and the fact that something has a broad scientific consensus does not make it true or beliefworthy. That something scientific enjoys a majority assent among scientists working in that field means that, all else being equal and in the absence of other relevant considerations, we are justified in believing it (though even with this, many philophers of science would disagree). But where all else is not equal and where there are many scientific and extra-scientific considerations to take into account, the fact that some theory enjoys such wide assent no longer means it can be treated as automatically justified or true. It may be science (and opposing theories might not count as "science" even) but it doesn't follow that that is what ought to be believed. This editor seems to be falling into a blind scientism where all truth is mediated by "science" and "science" alone and where all authority over fact and truth is governed by the majority opinion of scientists, scientism's infallible priests and prophets.

The rest of the editorial is typical rhetoric - it's not even about science at all, yet it's implied that it is and that if you disagree you're being unscientific or "going against science". It says,

"And he has stood firm against the advance of embryonic stem cell research, a promising avenue that might eventually lead to cures for such maladies as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. Stingy with his veto pen, the president has exercised it only three times -- two of those to block measures to broaden federal research on embryonic stem cells.
Last month, the president clung to a dubious rationale that values the "lives" of embryos, about the size of a pencil-point, over the lives of full-fledged children suffering with juvenile diabetes. His argument is even less rational if you consider the fate of the vast majority of leftover embryos: They will eventually be destroyed. Apparently, it's perfectly acceptable to dump those blastocysts in the trash. But using them to cure hideous diseases? That's unacceptable, according to Bush's moral principles. "

These issues are about ethics, not science - it's one ethical or political view versus another. To use it as an example of politics trumping science is simply dishonest, though unfortunately often effective at persuading people. Yes, embryonic cell research might lead to cures, but it might not - it's not a sure thing (in an example of the other side really putting scientific fact to one side, it's often spoken of as if it was certain that this research is going to save thousands of lives and improve the quality of everyone's lives). Nor is it mentioned that there has been success with adult stem cell research and, even though it is not quite as promising as embryonic stem cell research, it still has a chance of doing the same sort of stuff but without the ethical costs or controversy. Instead, the picture is painted thusly: those against embryonic stem cell research are against curing people of disease. If that was what is really going on, that would indeed be awful. But, again, it's incredibly dishonest when people, predictably, put things that way. Those against the research are not against curing disease - they're against killing or causing harm, no matter who it might be, including embryos.

As for the last argument that embryos aren't important, it's a nonstarter. For one thing, what does size have to do with moral importance? Are we to treat babies or small children (or midgets or dwarfs for that matter) as of less importance simply because they are smaller? To treat all people equally and refuse to kill one innocent person for the sake of another is about human decency and rights - it has nothing to do with valuing one life over another as the editorial indicates. That's just incredibly wrong-headed - equality and respecting of human rights does not mean valuing one life over another!

When the editorial talks about the fate of the embryos, that is indeed unfortunate and is an issue that has been sorely neglected by the pro-life movement. But why does she talk as if the administration or people against embryonic stem cell research are okay with that? So far as I know none of them have expressed such a view and I think they would all be against such a waste of human life. The fact that something is going on and I haven't tried to stop it yet doesn't mean that I approve of it or that that thing is acceptable. Perhaps the argument is that the embryos are going in the trash anyway, so we might as well use them for research. But that's not a very good argument either. That's like being in Nazi Germany and approving of the execution of Jews and other undesirables for medical experiments since "they're all going to die anyway" in the gas chambers. That's a morally abhorrent argument to make and if that's what's being claimed here, I can't see much of a relevant difference.

Ultimately, this editorial is a prime example of what happens when partisan politics trumps clear thinking. It's an example of waving around the word "science" as a kind of magic word to get people to join your own side and hate the other - all without actually dealing with real science or the issues actually involved in it or really stopping to consider whether any of this has much of anything to do with science in the first place.

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