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The Sciences

Debating Ron Bailey and Wesley Smith, Part I

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 12, 2006 11:23 PM


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The three way debate/discussion on science and politics hosted by the Smith Family Foundation on Tuesday night was an interesting event, to say the least. It was in some ways a difficult discussion for me, because the other participants, Ronald Bailey and Wesley Smith, are much more inclined than I to mix it up about the ethics of different kinds of research, especially when it comes to future biomedical advances and whether they should go forward without restriction. I, on the other hand, simply take the stance that while ethical viewpoints may differ, that's no excuse for either side to distort the science. So the approaches of the panelists were sort of orthogonal, with Bailey being the person most versatile when it came to crossing over into areas covered by the other two speakers. Thus, I didn't really wind up differing or sparring to any significant degree with the other panelists. The aim of this post (so lengthy that I'm going to do it in two installments) is to begin to remedy that defect.

Bailey and I, I suspect, have some differences about global warming, though he is certainly no skeptic these days when it comes to basic human causation of climate change. So our differences would probably be small or at least manageable. Bailey still seems hooked on an argument that I'm not convinced by: That although global warming is happening, the changes will likely be small. I just don't see how you get there. It depends on a particular reading of the models, I suppose, rather than simply accepting the full range of possibilities presented by the models. I'm not comfortable picking and choosing in this way. There's way too much uncertainty, particularly about feedbacks in the system.

There were also a couple of comments by Bailey at the debate with which I differed. He made a broad "when was science ever not politicized?" argument, with which I agree to an extent. But I also think the situation is much worse now than it has been in the past in American politics, and Bailey's attempts to suggest otherwise didn't impress me much. For example, he used a couple of case studies of alleged science politicization from the Clinton administration. Because I didn't get precise notes of what Bailey argued at the event, here's how he made the same basic point (with the same examples) in Reason magazine:

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the Bush administration has done all that UCS accuses it of doing. This problem is not particular to Republican administrations--the very linkage of government and science almost guarantees some chicanery. Let's recall the halcyon days of the Clinton administration. In 1993, Princeton University physicist William Happer was fired from the Department of Energy because he disagreed with Vice President Al Gore's views on stratospheric ozone depletion. In 1994, President Bill Clinton rejected the finding from the Embryo Research Panel of the National Institutes of Health which declared that the intentional creation of human embryos for genetic research was ethical. Clinton simply banned any federal funding for such research.

For the sake of argument, let's grant the validity of the Happer story (though I bet some Clinton people would protest this). Bailey's second example, Clinton's rejection of the findings by the Embryo Research Panel, seems to involve an ethical/political disagreement, not an interference with scientists or the scientific process. So it's not a misuse or abuse of science and doesn't really count in this context. In any case, one or two case studies do not a comprehensive indictment make, and the Bush administration has been comprehensively indicted (by myself and others) for systematically misusing science across a range of areas. It follows that our argument cannot be undermined by simply providing one or two Clinton administration counterexamples. I fully grant that these exist.

As for Wesley Smith: He's at the Discovery Institute, but not part of the organization's official "intelligent design" push. Instead, he's largely interested in bioethics, where he advances a strong pro-life position. Politically, though, he's unorthodox, to say the least, because he has strong ties to Ralph Nader and said at the debate that he does not introduce religious arguments into the public square. I suspect that Smith and I would find a lot of ground when it comes to something like the radical animal rights movement: I think they abuse science, and so does he. And I think their attacks on researchers are appalling.

So where do I specifically differ with Smith? Well, although we did not discuss this at the debate, I think Smith's characterizations of embryonic stem cell science go beyond a mere matter of differing ethical opinions. Unfortunately, they attack and sometimes distort the science. Because I reviewed Smith's writings in anticipation of the debate, I have a couple of examples handy that I'd like to share.

First, consider Smith's recent Weekly Standard piece about the South Korean therapeutic cloning scandal (which has gotten even worse, if that's possible, since the article appeared). Smith tries to use the scandal to question peer review:

Hwang somehow convinced one of the world's most prestigious journals--and through it, the world--that he was a historic figure in science...This debacle raises several interesting questions: What does it tell us about the thoroughness of the peer review process? Why were younger South Korean scientists able to discover Hwang's missteps when the presumably more seasoned peer reviewers for Science failed?

It's a horrible embarrassment for the journal involved when published results are exposed as fraudulent. I'm sure the people at Science are feeling the pain right now, and engaging in plenty of woulda-coulda-shouldas about what they might have done to prevent this. However, the scientific peer review process is generally not designed to detect outright fraud. It's not an audit process. There is a presumption of honesty in the reporting of research results.

Moreover, in a broader sense, science worked in this case. The "research" of Woo Suk Hwang was exposed for what it really was. If anything, this case highlights the strengths of the scientific process, when conceived not simply as a narrow process of peer review by a single journal, but rather as broader process involving all types of scrutiny of new work by peers and colleagues.

Smith also uses the Korean scandal to lobby for adult stem cell research, a frequent theme in his writings:

More to the point, will the adult/umbilical cord blood stem cell successes that have emerged one after the other in recent years finally receive the attention they deserve in the mainstream press, which has been so intoxicated with embryonic research as virtually to ignore nonembryonic breakthroughs?

First, it's wrong to assert that the press ignores (or "virtually" ignores) non-embryonic breakthroughs. Recently I did a Lexis Nexis search for New York Times articles by just one reporter, Nicholas Wade (who happened to be the moderator of the Smith Family Foundation event), covering research using adult stem cells. In the last four years, I found 7 such articles by Wade, including one front page story. Remember, this is just one reporter.

More generally, no one is saying that adult stem cells lack research promise. But those, like Smith, who try to use research in this area to denigrate embryonic work--or to create a contrived opposition between two ongoing fields of research that does not actually exist in the minds of scientists--are in my view misusing science.

Scientists want to understand the attributes of both adult and embryonic stem cells, to increase basic knowledge and (hopefully) to achieve cures. At the end of the day, it may well be that different kinds of stem cells are effective in treating different kinds of conditions. But we don't know yet--and scientists aren't interested in shutting down avenues of research before they've been fully pursued. That's just not the scientific mindset...


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