Can Society Make Ethical Decisions Without Science?

Frankenstein at the Helm?

I am truly baffled at the prospect of making decisions without understanding the facts at the base of the policy being considered. I am thinking, of course, of the decision by President Obama to modify an executive order arbitrarily penned by his predecessor limiting federal research funding on embryonic stem cell (ESC) research and the objections raised to this policy. Obama:

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.

The big risk in practicing science is that you may not like the answer it provides. The previous administration, when faced with results it didn’t like, decided to censor the results. I don’t see how this makes any sense. How can a government make decisions and policy when the facts are hidden or discredited based on predetermined biases?

Tom Gilson asks questions at Thinking Christian that make it seem as though he hasn’t looked all that closely into what is done to prepare ESCs for research. Nor does he seem to realize that the ESCs used for research are otherwise slated for destruction, too old to be viable for in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Robot Chicken as Embryo Slated for Research

Robot Chicken as Embryo Slated for Research

The debate on this has been framed all along as “science vs. anti-science.” But from where do we discover our goals (“to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives”)? Does science determine our values and goals? Does it tell us whether the life of an embryo is of less value than the life of an adult? Does it tell us, “This is an exception to ‘don’t slaughter the helpless and innocent for the sake of the rest of us'”?

The Bush administration made clear through several executive decisions that there was an anti-science bias in its policy directions. They ignored the advice of biologists in making decisions regarding endangered species. They hired an undergraduate student to change the wording on reports in order to mislead the public on the results of studies or to even censor the words, “Big Bang,” from a report.

To be very clear, science doesn’t provide values and ethics. Society has to argue them out, to use reason and, yes, sometimes even prejudice to determine values and ethics. But my trouble is in determining how values and ethics can be determined with integrity if the nature of causal relationships between phenomena are deliberately concealed?

In the case of ESC research, the embryos are donated following the expiration of their viability. They are not “ripped from the womb” by Frankensteins trying to play God. They are not the subject of Mengele white coats torturing twins for some absurd and twisted evil purpose.

And yet, this is what the pro-lifers would have us believe, that these subjects of study would otherwise produce adorable babies for adoption, no matter what the truth is.

The third is a misunderstanding that the use of ESC destroys a human life. Not a single embryo would be “saved” by blocking ESC research. ESC research uses a very early embryo, a small ball of a few cells, smaller than a period on a page. These embryos are excess embryos, left over from IVF procedures. They are frozen and slated to be discarded. They are not in a womb, and will never be a child. These cells are undifferentiated, that is they have not developed into specific tissue types. The real moral question is whether it is better to simply destroy these early embryos or to use them to create potential cures that could end the suffering of millions of children and adults?

I say that we need to actually do research on what can and cannot be accomplished with the use of cells that would otherwise be tossed.

Gilson seems to think that this is a case of the tail wagging the dog, that science should be secondary in making ethical decisions. But the important point is that science is not the one that makes those decisions. Society makes the decisions. Decisions must be made with facts, but we are the ones that make them.

There is unethical research that has been done. Animal research is an area in which there are great strides that need to be made in order to ensure that researchers follow ethical guidelines. Animal research must be done, but it must be done with care and respect. Note an important snippet from Obama’s declaration, and then tell me if you seriously think that he is putting Frankenstein at the helm:

But in 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. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.

But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans – from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs – have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.

No. Science doesn’t own ethics. It must guard against ethical violations. Ethical considerations that don’t take into account the results of scientific evaluation have little foundation, however. I don’t know where Gilson gets his “anti-science vs. science,” except that Christians seem more likely to devalue science than any other group in the United States.

Luckily, the numbers of Christians here is shrinking.

Originally posted at Tangled up in Blue Guy.

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4 Responses to “Can Society Make Ethical Decisions Without Science?”

  1. March 17th, 2009 at 9:32 am

    The Science Pundit says:

    I think Richard Carrier put forth the best argument I’ve heard for a rational and naturalistic basis for morality and ethihics (Videos 2-7 of this playlist).

    A while ago I was in a discussion with someone about the role of science in morality. After carefully explaining why I thought it was important to take a “scientific” approach to values and ethics, the response I got was “So you think that some guy in a white lab coat should decide what’s right and wrong for society?”


  2. March 17th, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I think that sometimes Scotch is only way to cure such “facepalm” moments. It’s infuriating sometimes to have a person so obviously display that they haven’t heard a word you have said.

  3. March 17th, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Katkinkate says:

    You can certainly make lots of ‘ethical’ decisions without science, however you’ve no right to complain if the physical results of those decisions aren’t what you were expecting.

  4. March 17th, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Yes, because without looking at the science in, for example sex education, one can hardly be surprised at the jump in pregnancies and STD’s among American teens.

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