The stem-cell controversy, as falsely presented in the media and political debates, was always little more than a stalking horse for warmist zealotry. The argument, as portrayed by Democrat politicians, posited the pursuit of pure science by disinterested experts, which promised immediate and remarkable health benefits for the pubic, against obstructionist superstition and political pandering which was standing in the way of curing disease. By focusing on this argument, which could be sold easily to the public [after all, who would stand in the way of a cure for a crippling disease?] they hoped to establish the principle that public policy should be guided by scientific opinion, unfettered by moral, political, or ideological constraints.
Note the bait and switch here. The argument moves immediately from removing constraints on research to allowing scientific opinion to guide the formulation of public policy. As the article reports:
Science and politics often conflict, said Granger Morgan, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a former science advisory board chairman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Perhaps illustrated no more wildly than in 1897 when the Indiana legislature attempted to change the mathematical concept of pi to 3.2. Science should provide the facts that politicians use for their decisions, Morgan and Leshner said.The reference to the Indiana legislature's action is so extreme as to be laughable, but it appears regularly in technocratic polemics. The effect is to portray all political reservations about the utility of scientific expertise in the formulation of policy as simple ignorance. But that is not the case -- there are plenty of good reasons to have reservations about unfettered scientific authority. The Indiana legislature was foolish in its actions more than a century ago, but to invoke it and let the subject drop there ignores the far more important and genuinely harmful distortions of policy introduced by scientific experts in more recent times. One could point to the excesses of the eugenics movement and Nazi race theorists in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but these are only the most extreme examples of technocratic zealotry leading to public harm. One could also invoke mid-twentieth century sociological and psychological theories that have undermined and rendered dysfunctional much of our public education and justice systems. Today we are confronted with a global warming imperative that threatens our economic health and personal welfare. Given the potential for immense and harmful public consequences, it is altogether reasonable to evaluate scientific opinion in the light of its economic, moral, and political implications.
I fear that Obama is propelling our country along a dark and dangerous path toward technocratic governance and in this regard, at least, I hope he fails.
Yuval Levin, in the WaPo, writes:
[S]cience policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. In science policy, science informs, but politics governs, and rightly so.Well said! Read the whole thing here.
There are, of course, different ways for politics to exert authority over science. To distort or hide unwelcome facts is surely illegitimate. But to weigh facts against societal priorities -- economic, political and ethical -- in making decisions is the very definition of policymakers' duty. And to govern the practice of scientific techniques that threaten to violate important moral boundaries is not only legitimate but in some cases essential.