"What's the big fuss? It's just research!" (Or, how scientists understand the public's qualms.)

A friend who has been lurking here sent me an email the other day to get my take on the apparent attitude of American scientists toward stem cell research and toward the American public. My friend writes that he has been struck by the reaction of scientists in discussion of stem cell research that

"Gee, I just can't understand what all the fuss is about -- this is just research! The scientists in Europe are all laughing at us, because they just don't understand what all the controversy is about! We're losing ground and falling behind!" and so on.

Now, I don't have a settled view about the various uses of stem cells. But I guess that I'm baffled by those scientists' bafflement. They seem to think that it's completely mysterious that people (many, but not all, of whom are motivated by their interpretations of their religious faith) would actually think that their ethical values should constrain their technological/scientific endeavors. Have I simply misperceived what those scientists are saying, do you think? Or is there some naive sort of view that their research really is ethically neutral, and that the real problem is with the people who insist on "politicizing" a perfectly legitimate undertaking? Or is it something else?

While I make no claims to be able to get into anyone else's head (heck, some days my own is hard enough to access), I have some guesses about what's going on here.

First, how do scientists see themselves? Of course, they see themselves as seekers of truth, and as such want to protect their ability to pursue scientific questions of interest. Some of these are questions that will most likely result in "basic knowledge" (which seekers of truth like quite a lot), while others may actually have useful applications that others who don't value knowledge in itself could value -- say, cures for diseases. At the same time, these seekers of truth are a competitive bunch, and they'd like a chance to pursue truth with the same wild abandon as scientists in other countries. You can frame this as an interest in maintaining our global competitiveness in science and technology, but on the ground it may feel more like an Olympic hockey game ("USA! USA!").

But then, there are expressions of concern from the folks outside the scientific community about certain lines of research scientists would like to pursue in their quest for truth (and the things you can do for people with the knowledge you find). There are worries raised about whether research with embryonic stem cells ought to be rushed into, or done at all. And the scientists express bafflement.

At least, it looks like bafflement. Some of it, I think, is genuine bafflement, but there's a good bit of impatience mixed in as well.

Scientists are frustrated that the views of a smallish group of religious folks have been bumping up against science. And, the jostling seems rather more intentional than accidental lately. All these battles over the teaching of evolutionary theory, and the attempts (by non-scientists) to annoint "Intelligent Design" as a prefectly respectable scientific theory, strike scientists as undue interference with the teaching of science (and the conduct of scientific research) by people who don't understand how science works and who want to remove science from the public discourse altogether. (Seriously, check out "The Wedge Document".)

In a country where there is purported to be some sort of separation between church and state -- and where many other religious folks, including religious scientists, have no trouble reconciling evolutionary biology with their faiths -- the fact that a religious minority can interfere with science so successfully strikes scientists as pretty appalling. (It doesn't help that this religious minority avails itself of things like flu shots produced by the very science they seem to be trying to shut down. Insult, meet injury.)

Scientists are frustrated that a government that has tried to ignore or rewrite science either to satisfy industry or to satisfy its religious base gets to impose regulations on the sorts of research that can be conducted. There are examples aplenty that the current administration is not especially committed to scientific methods of proof (or "reality-based knowledge"). Given that scientists see themselves as seekers of truth, rather than any administration's monkey-boys and girls, they are rather suspicious of political types who don't (or won't) understand the methodology of science imposing restrictions on scientists.

Scientists in other countries seem to have it better. At least as viewed from the outside, scientists in Europe, for example, don't seem to be as buffeted by social, political, and religious forces. They can conduct stem cell research legally without having to become political lobbyists to do it. (Hardly anyone goes into science to become a political lobbyist.)

The ethical issues around stem cell research are not clear-cut, even if the people shouting the loudest to shut the research down say they are. Scientists are not amoral creatures. Scientists value human life and human flourishing at probably the same rate that non-scientists do. And this is part of what motivates scientists to explore stem cell research -- while its immediate promise may have been oversold, someday it may offer real help for human ailments. Yes, there are embryos involved in the isolation of embryonic stem cells, but at present, the moral status of human embryos is ... at least ambiguous. Abortion is still legal (mostly). Fertility clinics have freezers full of "extra" embryos from IVF. It is not that scientists have, as a group, decided that embryos are without moral worth. Rather, in a cost-benefit analysis, the already-born whose suffering might be helped with the fruits of this research are judged to have more moral worth.

Of course, some religious folks think there is an absolute moral value that must be accorded to human embryos -- one that makes their use completely off-limits. But other religious folks disagree. As noted in a post at The Pluripotent (about Moira Gunn's interview of Christopher Thomas Scott):

[I]ndividual members of organized religions, even evangelical Christians, may be surprisingly supportive of stem cell research, in spite of what their leaders may say.

Scott said that Judaism is especially in favor of stem cell research -- their faith says that if one has a technology that heals, one must use it. He says Islam is divided: though they have lots of directives on abortion, there's no consensus on using stem cells. Some Muslim leaders testified in favor of the research when George Bush had hearings on it.

It must also be noted that scientists who are not religious make moral decisions, too. This is not a matter of conscienceless scientists going blindly forth while the morally-aware watch in horror. Rather, this is a situations where different people's moral sensibilities lead them to different conclusions. This is not altogether different from the issue of how animals are used in scientific research -- animals whose potential for suffering is indisputable (unlike that of an embryo -- at around 100 cells total at the point it would be used in stem cell research). Different scientists feel differently about the moral cost of animal research -- as do different people in the larger society. Animal research, however, is not absolutely forbidden because of the views of a vocal minority. It feels, to many American scientists, as if that's what's happening to stem cell research, state by state, if not nationally.

So, what we have here is a set of conditions where scientists see themselves as trying to do something really good -- not just building knowledge, but building knowledge that could, down the road, make life better for people who endure real suffering. But, a vocal and politically active portion of the larger community that might benefit from the scientists' labors seems to be trying to shut the research down based on a moral viewpoint that lots of other people don't share. And, given their activism in other quarters, it feels like these people want to shut down all science. These provokes a visceral reaction, from the scientists: "We're trying to help you, not hurt you! Quit bugging us!"

Scientists, of course, know that the visceral reactions are not the ones that serve us best most of the time.

The reality is that, in a country where a lot of research is supported with public monies, restrictions on research are not left solely to the ethical sensibilities of scientists. What sorts of use of animal or human subjects of research federal funding agencies will allow is driven in part by what the public will tolerate. Maybe in a perfect world the community of scientists could be completely self-regulating. We're still living in the world in which the scientists and administrators in the Public Health Service let the Tuskegee Syphilis Study go on for 40 years.

At the same time, we're living in a pluralistic society, where people have different views. Deciding whose views set the boundaries of acceptable research is a very hard problem.

This is not a problem most scientists feel they have the training to solve; they are neither moral philosophers nor politicians. And, they have a hard time believing that all the folks on the "restrict it all" side are bargaining in good faith -- this could be more of the Wedge. So, what comes off as bafflement that other people might have ethical worries about stem cell research, or that ethical considerations might impose some limits on scientific research, is really, I think, bafflement that a relatively small portion of the public -- a portion that doesn't seem to understand how science works or how its work could be of value -- seems to have the power to rob everyone else of the benefits of scientific research. They see that vocal portion of the public as being paternalistic -- something the scientists are accused of being. And it blows their minds.

Navigating the waters of pluralism is hard. But, unless scientists can get their own country somewhere, it has to be done. (Even then, it's not like scientists are all of one mind -- but at least most of them aren't anti-science. Scientists need to get the public to see them as people who take moral decision-making seriously, and this will require not being dismissive of moral concerns raised by non-scientists. This is not the same, of course, as agreeing with all these moral concerns, or being bound by them. But, they ought to be acknowledged and dealt with reasonably. The recent consensus statement on stem cell research coming out of the Hinxton Group looks like a good start, but there is surely a great deal more work to do on this.


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bafflement that a relatively small portion of the public -- a portion that doesn't seem to understand how science works or how its work could be of value -- seems to have the power to rob everyone else of the benefits of scientific research.

Thanks for your work on this post.

This touches on an issue I've posted on twice in the last two weeks, starting here and that in turn links back to a PZ blog.

Summarized -- this "anti-science" movement, while personally legitimate to most of these people, did not bloom into influence by accident or via natural social mechanisms. It's been intentionally fostered, massaged, and manipulated, and continues to be so, to provide voting blocks to give a specific political faction national power. A great portion of these religiously-motivated people have until recently rejected and not participated in our political process. Now they do, big time.

I understand scientist's "bafflement" at this, but this political development has been clear and obvious for a decade or two. How this is being done, and how to counter it, is a scientific problem and the answers are, basically, in already existing research results. Few scientists seem aware of this. It's extrememly frustrating to watch.

Carl Rove went to George W. with statistics that showed if Bush ran, he could win the Texas governorship with the Christian evangelical vote alone! The rest is history.

By SkookumPlanet (not verified) on 27 Feb 2006 #permalink

There was a story on 60 Minutes yesterday about promising stem cell research into repairing spinal chord injuries. We could be within a couple of years of being able to restore at least partial motion in those who are completely paralysed.

The scientist doing the work characterised this breakthrough (mouse spinal columns have already been healed) as a "once in a generation" advance. He is convinced we're on the very edge of amazing breakthroughs with stem cell technology.

And I get the feeling that it is this optimism which is driving the scientists forwards and explains in part why they are puzzled why some people are demonizing their work. The scientists see the potential for stem cells to cure all sorts of currently incurable diseases and injuries and their zeal blinds them to those who have religious objections. And I bet they're thinking that when that breakthrough occurs, even most of the religious nuts are not likely to turn down life-saving treatments for themselves or, especially, their loved ones. (Probably true!)

There's also a touch of arrogance in these scientists' thinking as well, but that's to be expected when you're talking about the leading researchers in any field. And they can point to the development of IVF which has created the "problem" of leftover embryos and yet has mostly escaped villification from the anti-abortion crowd (no doubt because it's bad PR to deny a mother the chance of conceiving a child).

I'm sure it's easier for scientists to be more objective about their work since they can see these stem cells for what they are--clumps of cells. Congregations sitting in their pews on Sunday morning being harrangued by their fundamentalist preacher have a harder time being objective. Now taken any of these people and put them in an IVF clinic that's on fire, with one baby and 500 frozen embyros. They have a choice to save the baby or the 500 frozen embryos, but not both. I don't doubt for a minute that all of them would save the baby.