Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The whole stem cell/science thing

Who am I to comment on US policy, but I will comment on US news coverage. I've been reading a few articles covering the decision of Barack Obama to overturn the decision that George W. Bush made to ban public funding of embryonic stem cell research. I really don't know what I think about embryonic stem cell research in general, it's a lot more gray I think than some would want to admit, but I also think it's a debate that's a bit past its time as the most promising stem cell research today doesn't come from embryos but from people's own cells. Anyway, that's not my point....

My point is the false dichotomy that reporters seem to be making between Religion and Science. They say that this decision brings science back to the White House.

One such article was by Roger Simon at (my favourite american political news source at the moment)

"President Barack Obama did a lot more than lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research Monday. He came to the startling conclusion that scientific research should be based on science."

What does the phrase "scientific research should be based on science" mean? Scientific research should of course be scientific, but research is always subject to outside demands. Funding (it needs someone who is interested in the question being studied). Politics (it must be politically seen as advantageous if it's to receive public funding) Ethics (all reputable scientific endeavors must undergo ethical questioning before beginning the project and even attaining grants). Bush (who I can't believe I'm defending) I believe, didn't argue against the liklihood that experimenting with embryonic stem cells, will eventually give rise to effective treatments for terrible illnesses. His argument was (agree or not) that these embryos had human rights and created an ethical issue that would be difficult for many tax payers to see their money going to. (probably a bad argument given that public money already goes to abortive perhaps a bit inconsistent). But nonetheless, this was his point. It wasn't an issue of science verses ethics. It's an issue of one groups ethical arguments vs another group's ethical arguments.

Simon also writes:
"Some centuries ago, they didn’t like Galileo saying the Earth revolved around the sun, and they got him to recant (and spend the rest of his life under house arrest). That wasn’t good for science, but it was just fine for the Inquisition."

Again, this is an unfair comparison. The church in this instance was arguing with Galileo's results. That's not happening here. People aren't against embryo testing just because they don't think it would work, and they wouldn't change their views if proven concretely that this is the case. They form their view from ethical values that determine human embryos are human beings. This is a philosophical and theological question, and therefore does not lend itself to exploration through the scientific method (even though certain findings such as: the ability of an embryo to split into twins, or the mapping of the genetic make-up of an embryo, and other chracteristics, can inform the debate, they cannot come up with an answer to the question.)

-Writing this I just heard a commentator on CNN say that "we should consider issues of religion, ethics, politics, but that at the end, science must come first...." what does that even mean? I guess in this sense they just mean the process of discovery. But how can a process, or methodology, of discovery control itself, without things like ethics. Science, itself, is an amoral undertaking. It's how the information discovered is used, or the techniques that one uses for that discovery.

For instance, if the issue was, (as they did in several countries in the 20th century) using those who have learning difficulties or who are prisoners to perform medical experiments on would people say "well, science must come first". The processes were often scientific, and even some knowledge we have about drugs I learn about in medical school comes to us from unethical experiments performed in Nazi Germany (it was a bit surprising finding that out). But obviously we would have ethical concerns, and we would recognise that perhaps there should be some boundaries to scientific endeavours.

It's really easy though to confuse people today. Scientific process cannot comment on ethical issues as such. Science can and must be used to help humanity (this is the basis of all medicine), and the ethical basis for using stem cell research for good. But saying, that science must come first before ethics, is REALLY an unwise statement. It's the type of statement that could cover many wrongs (as it has in the past).

Okay, that's enough of a rant for now. I should go to bed.


michael said...

After reading this again, I apologise for the incoherence and lack of grammar. I really should learn not to put up any new posts after 1:00 a.m.

Benjamin Washam said...

Actually Mike, I thought it was very well said/written and one of the more succinct and sound discussions of the topic I've read. Thank you!