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To Avoid Debate—Castigate!

The Letters to the Editor editor of the Los Angeles Times announced recently the paper will print no reader correspondence questioning global warming. His justification for quashing disfavored opinions? “I must rely on the experts — in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review,” he writes. And since most support the hypothesis that we are warming the planet, opinions to the contrary are “factual inaccuracy” from “climate deniers”—a pejorative term meant to equate global warming skeptics to those who deny the historical fact of the Holocaust.

Never mind that the “peer reviewed” science shows no global warming in 15 years—contrary to the predictions of computer models upon which much of sector relies for its predictions of coming doom. And never mind that there are reputable climate and other scientists who do not accept the establishment view about man-made global warming or the proposed solutions to the purported crisis. The Times has taken a side and only readers who agree will be allowed to opine in the published letters.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the Times’ censorship decision. For the last ten years I have noticed a growing trend in the mainstream media—which claims the mantle of objectivity—to only (or primarily) present the views of one side in contentious societal debates—and/or, to castigate the disfavored side with pejoratives such a “climate change denier.”

Take the embryonic stem cell debate. Opponents of ESC are often castigated as “anti-science” (so are global warming skeptics). The point of the branding is to avoid debate by branding intellectual opponents as irrational, theocratic, and/or reactionary Luddites, toward the end of convincing the general public that the adversary’s opinions can be dismissed as unworthy of serious engagement or respect.

But the denigration is wholly inaccurate. “Science,” properly understood, is a powerful method for gaining and applying knowledge about the physical universe. Its tools are observation, careful measurement, testing, and the like. Is anyone really against these things? No.

Indeed, unlike the global warming controversy, there is no substantial controversy over the science of ESCR. Proponents and opponents all agree that embryonic stem cells come from destroyed embryos. All acknowledge that the stem cells are pluripotent, that is, capable of becoming any cell in the body. Nor do most contest that embryonic stem cells could prove useful in scientific experiments and might, one day, be the source of medical treatments.

But by demeaning opponents as anti science, ESC proponents hope to hide the real nature of the controversy—which is about the ethical propriety of destroying human embryos as if they were no more important than a corn crop. Throw the very real scientific potential for developing non-contentious stem cell alternatives into the discussion—such as adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells—and you have a real policy donnybrook about which reasonable people may legitimately differ. But that understanding is the precise point that the castigators seek to obscure.

To further illustrate the point, let me give another example of an ethical issue involving science that has not generated angry charges of being “anti-science.” The National Institutes of Health recently announced that it will not fund new research using chimpanzees. Many applauded the new policy, citing the intelligence of chimps and their capacity to suffer as ethical reasons to stop the research. Others disagree—me included—citing the great human benefits that have come from using chimps in limited ways—the hepatitis vaccine is one—and the potential for future important breakthroughs, for example using chimps in the study of HIV.

So, why hasn’t the NIH been chastised in the same fashion as opponents of ESCR? The rule could, after all, prevent us from learning valuable scientific facts and inhibit the ability of science to alleviate human suffering—the very reasons opponents of embryonic stem cell research are rebuked.

The answer is simple: There is strong agreement within the scientific and bioethics communities for the moral view that led to the chimp policy, while most of these same advocates strongly oppose strict ethical limits on ESCR. In other words, whether one is deemed “anti-science” depends on whose moral ox is being gored.

One final example: A few months ago I wrote against permitting “three parent IVF” based on both safety and ethical concerns. (The process is done by taking the nucleus out of the egg of one woman, putting it into the enucleated egg of another woman, and then fertilizing with sperm. Voila, three biological parents.)

The purported reason for creating an embryo with two biological mothers is to enable women with mitochondrial disease–who would be the nuclear donors–to bear biologically related children. But you know it won’t stop there. At some point, the process will be used to help, say, polyamorous threesomes or lesbian couples have children biologically related to all partners-that is to facilitate lifestyle desires, not prevent disease.

Responding to my criticisms, Hank Campbell, the purveyor of Science 2.0, a popular online science journal, had a conniption. He urged National Review to cease publishing my Human Exceptionalism blog in order to gain the respect of scientists. Then, Campbell really jumped the shark castigating me as a “social authoritarian,” and an “anti-science fear monger” who thinks “biology is a tool of Lucifer.”

Never mind that I have never invoked the dark lord in my work: What about the actual substantive arguments I mounted against 3-parent IVF? After all, engaging intellectual opponents in substantive debate is what public discourse is supposed to be all about.

Campbell did not write one word of substantial rebuttal, merely asserting: “What’s so unethical about that? Well, nothing.”

Do you see the tactic? Campbell’s audience may never have read my work. But to make sure my views—and those who might agree with me—are never actually deliberated on the merits, he attacked me as a crackpot religious fanatic.

And so it goes on issue after issue after issue. But here’s a truth worth pondering: Advocates who attack their adversaries as “anti-science” or “deniers” or some other canard, intend their ad hominem ridicule to protect establishment views and policy agendas against those who would dare challenge them. The point is to prevent discourse and protect policy orthodoxy, rather than prevail in it. Ironically, if anything really is “anti-science,” that is.