Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Great Article, Bad Attitude

Via Instapundit, I read this article on a key development in stem-cell research. A Japanese researcher has managed to get mouse adult cells to transform into stem cells. If successfully duplicated for humans, this is a breakthrough of astonishing magnitude. However, two quotes caught my eye.

First of all:

The previous head of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Lawrence S. B. Goldstein, had even dismissed reprogramming as quixotic. "If there are scientists who morally oppose [embryonic] stem cell research and want to devote their energies to uncovering alternatives, that's fine," said Goldstein. "But in no way, shape, or form should we ask the scientific community and patient community to wait to see if these new alternatives will work."

Note the dismissive tone. “Alternate views are ok, except that we're going to proceed like they don't exist.” In my opinion, this highlights the problem of depending on expert consensus to inform public opinion. For things like research, experts are there to provide grounding in seperating pie-in-the-sky from good science. They are successfull when they can read the trends of ongoing research and understand how to build upon it further. But, this ability could degrade in situations where something peturbs the trends. But pertubations, unforseen twists occur ALL THE TIME. Why is this a big deal? Here’s the second quote:
Two years ago, Dr Janet D. Rowley, an Australian working in the US who is an implacable foe of the Bush Administration's policy, dismissed ethical solutions like Yamanaka's. "We have extremely limited research dollars, and to use them to study these alternatives is wrong," she declared. "That money should be available for actual research."

Ah, the real reason for deriding alternate views. If scientists depend on money for research, then the stakes aren’t about truth anymore. The stakes are about who gets the biggest cut of the pie. So, the scientific community (which helps determine where the money goes) gets together and says “this is right, this is not”. They control the dialogue AND the pocketbook by advising the politicians (most of whom wouldn’t know pluripotency from pyromania).

What I find especially interesting is the tone. Some scientists and intellectuals often bemoan American’s anti-intellectual leanings. But it's not entirely undeserved on their part. Even as an engineer, I wonder how they can blame ordinary people for dismissing them when they do the same if it doesn't serve their interests. For a profession (theoretically) dedicated to objective thought, there are some who rarely bother with the effort. Note the utter lack of respect for someone who considers theraputic cloning to be morally wrong. Personally, I don't know if I agree with that but I also don’t walk around wholly dimissing such concerns.

Compare Dr. Rowley's response with, you know, a scientist actually peforming stem cell research.
Even the Australian doyen of therapeutic cloning, Alan Trounson, of Monash University, is enthusiastic. "It would change the way we see things quite dramatically," he says. He plans to start experiments "tomorrow".

Note he is not concerned about funding or speed. He's actually concerned about (wait for it) the science.

Everytime I hear someone like Dr. Rowley speak in this manner, I remember an episode of “Babylon 5” called “Deathwalker”. A former war criminal discovers a chemical treatment for immortality but the serum requires people die to make it. The human government offers the war criminal safe harbor in exchange for her formula. This Faustian pact is only avoided when another alien race intervenes.

Dimissing ethical concerns puts scientists in a position of dismissing those that would use, judge and determine the human utility of scientific research: everyday people. And this is no minor danger. As previously pointed out, with humanity headed toward potential transformation, the best bet for human permance is empowering individuals to make more intelligent decisions.

In this case, politicized science is a clear and present danger to our future because they inform our ability to assess risks and rewards. They compromise this ability by degrading the public's critical thinking skills as well as their own. As representatives of science, this orthodoxy is who advises those that make, enforce and interpret our laws. Meaning, the more we are dependent on experts then more we are subject to their will, their personal dogmas and their fallability.

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