July 19, 2004

Don't hide behind "science"

Many creationists and would-be theocrats in this country don't really understand science.

Sometimes, neither do doctors.

This week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine carries a letter from one David S. Huckins, M.D., of Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. Huckins expresses his indignation that the President's Council on Bioethics has not done enough to ensure that its deliberations are unbiased. "Medical research conducted with the same bias would be summarily rejected by the scientific community as irrelevant and worthless."

There are plenty of grounds for criticizing the President's Council on Bioethics, and the process used to select its members. Failing to "rigorously exclude preexisting bias" is not one of them. Huckins, apparently, doesn't understand science or the purpose of the Council on Bioethics.

The aim of the President's Council on Bioethics is not the pursuit of scientific truth. Instead, the Council is charged with answering questions that aren't scientific--questions about ethics, values, and morals. These questions, by definition, can never be free from bias.

Perhaps Huckins can be forgiven for confusing the Council's purpose with the subject matter with which it deals. Among the ethical questions facing the Council is whether or not to pursue scientific inquiry using human stem cells derived from embryos. Stem-cell research may be scientific; the questions about whether or not we should do it are ethical.

What Huckins really objects to is not that the Council is biased, but that it is composed of too many individuals that subscribe to the wrong "political and religious ideology." That's a fair charge. But Huckins should stop waving his hands about "science" and own up to the fact that he is simply advocating a different political and religious ideology.

Posted by Carey at July 19, 2004 07:50 PM

Okay, ethics cannot be separated from facts. Maybe what Huckins is upset about is not that the people all hold moral beliefs contrary to Huckins's (or, more plausibly, this is not the only thing he's upset about). Maybe he's afraid that these people making decisions about what biomedical research is moral or not won't understand enough of the research to make a moral decision. Having a couple of research scientists to explain what is really being done might make sure that people aren't basing their later ethical judgments on science fiction rather than science fact.

Posted by: Heidi at July 20, 2004 06:04 PM

Yes, the questions about whether we should do stem cell research may be ethical, but the answer should be based in science, not religion. Many religious people reject science, when it comes into contact with their religious teachings. For example Many religious people cling to the notion that "every sperm is sacred" despite the fact that the "homonculus theory" has long since been debunked (the homonculus was a little person thought to reside in every sperm cell.) We should base our decisions on humanistic ethics and scientific fact. Our government is a secular one. I know, Carey that you think this bioethics committee is the one good thing that came out of the Bush administration, but I have to disagree. No good has come from the Bush administration. Unfortunately, it isn't just one man, though. the US is moving in this direction generally. You know the Taliban. That's us in 50 years unless something is done.

Posted by: Larry at July 20, 2004 06:04 PM

I agree with both of you. I wish I could post the entire letter, though, because if Huckins really meant to say that the members of the Council should understand the science before passing judgment on it, he utterly failed to actually say it. Either Huckins is a bad thinker or a bad writer, take your pick.

Posted by: Carey at July 21, 2004 02:01 PM

My two cents: Newton-Wellesley isn't a very good hospital.

Posted by: Nick G. at July 21, 2004 05:47 PM