Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 7, 2009
POLITICS: Science And Its Enemies On The Left, Part II(D)

IV. The Temptation of Power

Politicized science is, itself, a subset of the most profound problem of scientific integrity: the temptation presented when science is freed from the restraints that accompany all other forms of human activity, from accountability to moral opprobrium to external civilian oversight. When experts rule, the first casualty is the quality of their expertise.

The siren song of scientific triumphalism was graphically on display throughout the multi-year controversy over embryonic stem cell research. The conservative objection to such research was that it not only entailed the destruction of human embryos, but envisioned the future creation of more embryos - each containing a genetically unique human identity - solely for the purpose of destroying them in the process of scientific research. Even moreso than the question of the humanity of unborn fetuses growing in the womb, the question of whether to regard embryos outside the womb as fully human due to their distinct genetic identity is one on which people of good faith disagree. There is understandable reluctance to face the consequences of granting any legal status to an embryo, especially because embryos are routinely created with no prospect of a full human life in the process of in vitro fertilization, and by and large our society has settled without much debate on the legality and propriety of in vitro fertilization.

President Bush, weighing the moral calculus involved, reached a compromise decision - explained in a nationally televised address in August 2001 - to provide for the first time federal funding for stem cell research, whether or not it involved stem cells derived from the destruction of embryos, but drawing the line at taxpayer funding for any research that would entail the destruction of future embryos. Bush's compromise was not morally satisfying or entirely principled from anyone's perspective, but it was an attempt to balance the moral and practical considerations surrounding some of the thorniest problems of modern bioethics.

Honest critics of Bush's decision argued that Bush had drawn the line in the wrong place, and that embryos should not carry any moral weight. But those voices were few. By far the loudest talking point from the Democrats was that Bush had committed the offense of placing moral restraints of any kind on science. This was, we were told, "anti-science" or a "war on science," and as discussed above it set off an orgy of exaggerations of the promises of the science involved. At the core of the argument was the assertion that religious people in particular should not dare to speak against the morality of anything scientists might wish to explore.

The constant insistence by the Democrats that scientific progress should brook no moral restraint, and that anyone standing in the way of this particular scientific project was a dangerous theocrat, was positively chilling. Because science, with its great power not only over human liberty but human life itself, is if anything one of the human activities most in need of our most strenuous moral faculties. Biochemists and climatologists need to be subjected to civilian oversight and the moral conscience of society for precisely the same reasons as soldiers, economists, central bankers, lawyers, spies, diplomats, epidemiologists, rocket scientists, urban planners, and every other form of expert.

The temptation of the unrestrained expert comes in two stages. First, the expert in pretty much anything is subject to tunnel vision, and the greater the expertise, the greater the risk of such a focus. The expert is apt to have a limitless appetite for resources while ignoring competing social priorities. He may demand policies that maximize the ends sought by his discipline, while ignoring countervailing considerations and interests. He may refuse to accept any moral restraints or limitations on his methods or the uses of his creations.

Tunnel vision is only the beginning, however. Because the expert who learns that the recitation of jargon and the appeal to authority effectively exempts him from moral or social scrutiny has made the most dangerous discovery known to man: the ability to get away with virtually anything. Because if people will let you talk your way into money and influence with good science on the grounds that they do not understand it or have no right to obstruct it, what is to stop the expert from using bad science from accomplishing the same end, if the layman isn't equipped to tell the difference between the two?

Cracked.com, of all places, satirically captures the essence of the problem:

Every scientist dreams of a world without ethics. Whenever a scientist sees a set of twins, he or she secretly wonders what would happen if you surgically swapped their faces. They already have a chamber set up to harness the power of their screams as they gradually realize what has happened. Every day, ethics barely prevent experiments like this from being carried out.

But what if we didn't have these ethics? When Nazi doctors were let loose during WWII, the incredible rate of their discoveries were matched only by the inadequacy of words to atone for them. They might have been monsters, but without them, we never would have discovered the yield elasticity of the elderly, or learned what part of a prisoner's tongue detects the taste of angel meat.

The Nazis are obviously the extreme example, as is often the case, but the argument ad Hitlerum is a useful moral guidepost for precisely that reason: it reminds us why we insist that scientists, like everyone else, be subject to moral restraints and the skeptical eye of their fellow man. Because otherwise you do things like appointing a "science czar" who has written approvingly of compulsory abortion and sterilization as a solution to overpopulation.

In a society not yet as far gone as Nazi Germany, Climategate is what happens when scientists think nobody is looking, or at least that nobody is competent or willing to call them out. Given power, or the ability to influence those in power, the scientists have acted the way human beings have always acted around power. And because the Left provides greater scope than the Right for the exercise of power over civil society in the name of what science says is good for us - and because it denies the sources of moral remonstrance that can stand as a bulwark against scientific hubris - it will continue to offer the greatest temptations for scientists to be seduced by power.

In Part III: Dogma and the starvation of science and technology.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:37 PM | Enemies of Science • | Politics 2009 • | Science | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

"We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it."

That has be the funniest line to come out of this saga. So much for Popper.

And data storage issues aside, you would think they would have found a way to preserve raw data.

Posted by: MVH at December 9, 2009 12:27 PM
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