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23.6.04

Ideology Vs. Ethics Vs. Science

Joe Carter and Rusty Lopez aren't happy with John Kerry's recent speech wading into the science issue. Kerry said:

First, we need a president who will once again embrace our tradition of looking toward the future and new discoveries with hope based on scientific facts, not fear. That's what presidents are supposed to do. Franklin Roosevelt built great national laboratories. Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences. President Eisenhower established the White House Science Advisor. President Kennedy started America on the path that ended up with a man setting foot on the moon. And President Clinton helped lead us to a map of the entire human genome. Presidents think big and dream big. And nowhere is it more important to do so than crossing the new horizons of science and technology.

I am proud that today 47 Nobel Laureates have sent an open letter to America in support of my campaign and our cause to invest and lead the world in science. As president, I will listen to the advice of our scientists so I can make the best decisions. Their reports and evaluations will be open so that you can make informed decisions as well. This is your future and I will let science guide us, not ideology.

... And finally, we must lift the barriers that stand in the way of stem cell research and push the boundaries of medical exploration so that researchers can find treatments that are there, if only they are allowed to look. And we should do this while providing strict ethical oversight.

... If we pursue the limitless potential of science -- and trust that we can use it wisely -- we will save millions of lives and earn the gratitude of future generations. We have the potential to do so much good while at the same time meeting some very practical challenges -- lowering health care costs and creating new jobs.


Carter and Lopez take Kerry's condemnation of placing ideology over science as a indication that Kerry embraces scientism, that he thinks we ought to pursue scientific advances without regard to the ethics of the experiment or of the use of the results. But when Kerry says "ideology," he does not mean (as Carter claims) "ethics." He means "factual views distorted by incorrect ethics." The problem with Bush's limits on stem cell research was not that Bush had ethical scruples about the research, it's that 1) his ethical scruples were misguided, and 2) he distorted our factual knowledge in order to bolster his ethical position (by misrepresenting the number of viable stem cell lines).

Carter is correct to point out that Kerry is naive about the ethical integrity of scientists. But in claiming that scientists are ethical, Kerry is repeating what Carter and Lopez think he's denying -- that ethical restraint on science and technology is important.

Indeed, Kerry's arguments for more science are explicitly ethical. He's not pushing science for the sake of science. He's asserting certain ethical goals -- curing disease and improving the economy -- and then saying that certain scientific advances are necessary to achieve those ends. It's a thoroughly instrumental view of science.

The main thing that Kerry is getting at by saying he'll put science before ideology is point 2 above. The charge against Bush is that he's gone to the opposite extreme from scientism. Rather than thinking that science is unbound by ethics or can give you ethical answers, Bush acts as if science should be bent in order to support his ethical positions. Kerry's point is that unbiased knowledge of how the world actually works is a necessary part of good decisionmaking, along with solid ethical precepts. His comment that "their reports and evaluations will be open so that you can make informed decisions as well" is a promise not to pursue the correct ethical outcome by misrepresenting the facts. That's a far cry from saying he'd throw ethics out the window.

(Of course, none of this means that Kerry will actually do any of what he claims. I expect that he'll be better than Bush, but he's still a successful politician. Ethical scruples are not a fitness-enhancing trait in the political world.)

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