Friday, June 25, 2004

Stem Cells and Scientism

I returned to the Denver Post Letter to the Editor page today to see if there was any more buzz about fetal stem cell research and found a letter which parroted the conventional wisdom on not only fetal tissue but on science as a field of research today.

Concerning fetal tissue stem cell research, the writer said that the President is out of touch with mainstream thinking on the issue today. Given the context of his letter what he was implying is that Bush is simply ignorant of the best of science and refuses to pay attention to smart people. This clearly plays on the conventional wisdom that Bush is just a few IQ points away from mental retardation, and the sense that anybody who is anybody knows how valuable killing babies can be. Just like Kerry’s official position on the issue, the writer (and I don’t intend to slam the author of the letter-he is just parroting what is commonly accepted in too many circles) is exactly wrong. I happened to run across another article explaining the viability of adult stem cells, and this article is not from a body of scientists that some might find partisan (the online version of Nature magazine).

I am struck again about why people would push for baby killing when we can use adult stem cells. I earlier blogged that it is most likely due to ignorance concerning the facts of the issue; this letter might confirm another of my suspicions. I believe there is a political culture out there that will oppose a ban on fetal tissue research on entirely polemical grounds. Those in this camp make it sound like they are the ones in the know and everyone who disagrees with them should be mopping floors and selling slushies. Too often people take their stands based on really bad reasons like wanting to oppose a political figure they don’t like. So as a result, good science gets obfuscated behind propaganda.

The other issue which struck me in this letter was the belief that science is a methodology and not an ideology. This borders on a view called scientism-the belief that all we can know for sure about the truth comes only through science. There has been a lot of work done in the last few years which exposes the philosophical underpinnings of the scientific endeavor. Even the immortalized “scientific method” is a matter of philosophical assumptions more than it is a matter of science qua science. Don’t get me wrong-I am not arguing for any kind of relativistic view of science. Plenty of philosophies of science make for good and accurate science. What I do want to point out, however, is that the author of the letter has been duped into believing that science is truth and truth is science because all science is is observational.

If that truly were the case, the author would have observed that adult stem cells are not only scientifically viable, but they provide an ethically superior option.

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