in vitro fertilization dish.jpg
Process of in vitro fertilization in laboratory
Photo by Andriy Bezuglov on Adobe Stock

Abusing Science in the Name of “Science”

Published at The Stream

Science shouldn’t be controversial. Why would it be? Natural science offers powerful methods for learning about the universe. Given the benefits that, over the centuries, have been derived from these methods, who on earth isn’t “pro-science?”

Beyond crackpots like Ted Kaczynski, no one I have ever met. So, why are there national marches planned to defend science? Science isn’t under attack. The marches “for science” are nothing more than cynical attempts to prevail in public policy issues where the results of science are being applied to the human condition. It is, in short, to confuse science with politics.

Let me offer one example. A few years ago, self-proclaimed science advocate Hank Campbell, the head of the American Council on Science and Health, tried to persuade National Review to fire me as a contributor. What had I done to attract such scorn? Did I copy someone else’s work? Had I expressed a racist sentiment? Did I publish libel? None of the above. Campbell simply disagreed with me on how reproductive technology should be used. Note that this is a question of ethics and public policy, not natural science.

For that, Campbell accused me of being “anti science” and “hating biology.” He even accused me of viewing IVF “as a tool of Lucifer.” Lucifer? I have never brought up Beelzebub, Old Scrap, El Diablo, Satan, or the devil in any of my many books, articles, or speeches. I hadn’t done so in the column that got Campbell in such a dither. Nor have I ever written anything opposing biology itself.

What I did do was oppose plans to use a novel IVF procedure to create a “three-parent” baby. Here’s what I wrote:

Even though we don’t know about the safety [of the planned procedure], we should go where parents have never gone before?

No. Remember, these embryos would literally be made from broken eggs. As we have seen in cloning, that can lead to terrible developmental problems during gestation, and born cloned mammals often have significant health concerns. IVF babies also have worse health outcomes than naturally conceived children. Allowing the manufacture of three-parent children when safety concerns remain insufficiently explored would be blatant human experimentation.

How is that “anti-science?” I wasn’t opposing science, biology or even reproductive technologies per se. Rather, I made an ethical argument that it would be wrong to use this technique on humans, which until then had been done with animals.

Campbell did not engage or rebut my actual argument. Instead, he tried to shut down that debate by having me exiled from National Review.

That the usual purpose of the “anti-science” slur — to silence debate. Partisans wield it during intense moral and public policy disagreements that involve science in some way. But with few exceptions — such as the GMO debate — the “anti-science” charge is used against only one side of the debate.

Thus, when the National Institutes of Health announced that it would not fund new research using chimps, no one yelled that the NIH was being anti-science. Why not? After all, that decision was based on ethical grounds. And it could even make it harder for scientists to cure human diseases. The hepatitis vaccine, for instance, was based on research on chimpanzees.

Why wasn’t the chimp policy denounced as anti-science? Whether one is deemed “anti-science” or “pro-science” seem to have little to do with science itself. It depends on whose moral ox is being gored.

Activists don’t just use the anti-science label to favor one side in ethics debates. They also use it to stifle heterodox scientific research. My colleagues at the Discovery Institute, for instance, are often accused of being anti-science for promoting intelligent design. (Campbell made this charge in the article attacking me.) They suffer the label even though they use the standard methods of natural science. They simply explore and defend the idea that nature is better explained by intelligent design than blind forces. In this way, they argue that science not be confused with materialism. For that, they are denounced as “anti-science.”

If anyone is “anti-science,” however, it’s surely those who try to silence dissent and to enforce orthodoxies. That applies to the organizers of the March for Science in spades. They want to promote a narrow brand of politics and ideology, not science itself. From the March for Science website (emphasis in the text):

Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility are integral to this mission and to our overall goals and principles. … We cannot ignore issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia, or any other form of discrimination in the discussion and implementation of science…

It was a mistake to ever imply that the March for Science is apolitical — while this march is explicitly non-partisan, it is political. We do not endorse any candidates or political parties, but we do advocate for all policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest. Politics and science are intertwined, whether we face a travel ban that restricts the free flow of scientific ideas, changes in education policy that diminish students’ exposure to science, or budget cuts that restrict the availability of science for making policy decisions.

They are clearly conflating their own public policy goals with science itself. This could do greater harm to science than anything the activists have labeled “anti-science.” If most Americans come to believe that they must choose between “science” and their their moral and political views, science would be the loser.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.