Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stem-Cell Ban Lifted; Is The Justification Right?

There's a touch of slippery language in President Obama's prepared remarks on lifting the stem-cell ban that was put in place by President Bush:

"[I]n recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values...this Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources -- it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient -- especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda -- and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." (my emphasis)

Now to be clear: Billy does not disagree with President Obama's decision to lift the ban; indeed, like many of the moves of the President in recent weeks (after a very concerning sluggish start), he practically cheered himself hoarse when he heard the announcement of yet another rollback of the policies of the Bush administration.

That said, Billy isn't so sure that the metaphor of a scale of scientific knowledge on one side balanced by moral values on the other is a "false" one. Indeed, he thinks that a good number of troubling scientific research projects done are troubling precisely because they were not balanced by those very "moral values"--and many of these studies were done well into our own lives; indeed, in this decade! Billy is happy to cite such studies on request (including a doozie from a cancer journal published in 2002); in the meantime he assumes the shorthand is acceptable.

The issue, to Billy's mind, is not that there is a false dichotomy between the need for scientific knowledge and the moral values that restrict the access to such knowledge, but rather involves an argument about the moral values themselves. That is, it's not that scientists should just have their way and those with "moral values" should be trampled over in the quest for knowledge, but instead that we have to have a debate about which "moral values" will form the basis of ethical research. Billy has no desire to cede the "moral" high ground to what appear to him to be mostly religious fundamentalists. He does believe that moral values sometimes do have to put a halt to science. He just thinks that banning research on stem cells in the arcane belief that a collection of cells constitutes a human life is a poorly reasoned basis for such values.


  1. You're right; he was sloppy in lumping together a few different ideas.

    One problem has been the high-jacking of any supposed moral or ethical arguments by the religious right, where they managed to make it seem like they were the only ones that cared about such issues. And I think that's what Obama was getting at. So let's debate whether certain practice are ethical, but the answer is not based on what one person's religion dictates.

    The other, totally separate issue, is the corruption of science by other interests, whether religious or corporate. So we can debate whether it's a good idea to have sex education that's accurate and thorough but let's not pretend that abstinence programs work. Or let's debate the pros and cons of various ways to regulate greenhouse gases instead of denying all the science showing that global warming is real. And let's consider what actually causes autism, even if that means acknowledging that the pharma companies that produce vaccines are not in fact evil incarnate.

  2. Billy, I love your blog and agree with most of your points, but can you please stop this obnoxious third-person schtik? It sucks.

  3. "...It sucks." Constructive criticism!

    I'll try to meet you more than halfway, is that cool? As you know, this is a work in progress, and I'm still working out the kinks in terms of style and content. For my own part, I have generally liked the third-person approach, as it's a touch playful and serves to remind both me and the reader that it is a pseudonym and thus not precisely "me," but if it gets in the way of the main points I'm trying to make it ain't worth it. So you'll forgive me if I occasionally lapse into that style from time to time, if only for my own amusement.

    Apologies for having taken such time to reply--I have been flat on my back for nearly two weeks with a truly nasty case of cellulitis and am only now on the road to recovery. New entries coming soon.