Science Press and Science Blogs Perpetuate Bioethics Confusion

March 28th, 2009

Posted by: admin

In what might be a mix of a slow news day and the “War on Science” mentality, several science sites are reporting on a statement made criticizing President Obama’s recent stem cell research decision.  The statement was released by the Hastings Center and authored by several members of the President’s Council on Bioethics.  There is no mention of the statement on the Council’s website, and language in the statement suggests (though it could be stronger) that it is not an official Council statement.  Part of why some think this is newsworthy is that the Council is still operative until later in the year.  It is advisory, so it can do nothing binding on the Administration (or its predecessor).

Even so, it looks odd to the casual observer to have members of a Presidential Council opposing a President.  Therefore, much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth by those seeking to fill column inches or RSS feeds.  The problem is that the writing of the documents and especially the headlines perpetuates falsehoods about what happened.  It is not an official council statement, yet two of the headlines reporting the statement suggest that it is.  Now who’s pulling a bait and switch?

6 Responses to “Science Press and Science Blogs Perpetuate Bioethics Confusion”

  1. rephelan Says:

    Dr. Bruggeman:

    I’m having a little difficulty understanding the point of this post. Each of the three articles referenced did in fact point out that the statement was issued by a “rump” group and was not an official statement. Equally significant is the fact that the “rump” was a majority of the commission, including the Chairman. That the headlines were “teasers” is not a concern… anyone who stops reading at the headline is probably not anyone we want to have discourse with anyway.

    Let’s reframe this discussion, and one which your citations explicitly recognize. The current commission was appointed by a conservative president to advise him on ethics. Our new president will also probably reinstitute the commission with his own appointees to advise him on scientific ethics. My prognostication is that the two commissions will declare each other anathema. Which of these political appointees is the more ethical?

    I would suggest that certain ethical concerns in science: empiricism, full disclosure, replicability are within the purview of science. Other issues: when human life begins, the greater good vs. the good of the individual is not. They are issues that define societies and cultures, not scientific disciplines. These are questions that define who we are. The Nazis produced great benchmark science, at the expense of their sub human subjects. We’d really like to be better than that. Ethics should not be determined by survey or political affiliation.

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  3. David Bruggeman Says:

    My point is that the teaser headlines contradict the facts. I find that misleading, and counterproductive to discussing the issues raised by the statement. They wrote those headlines to make people click through, likely thinking that there was an official Presidential body conflicting with a President. The articles led with a false implication, and I find it irresponsible. There’s enough to debate within the statement that it doesn’t need the goosing that the writers and editors of the articles seemed to think it does.

    The board is not a scientific advisory board, but an advisory board on bioethics. There’s nothing wrong with it addressing issues of bioethics, which are an important part of stem cell policies. Neither board is (or would be) intended to advise on scientific ethics, certainly not on those concerns you highlighted.

    The board is constituted by Presidential appointees, so political affiliation can’t help but play a role in how any board makes decisions. The differences between the two can’t really be answered in terms of what’s more ethical, because that’s not the right first question. The better question to ask first is what is ethical. If the boards disagree on that, then which board’s decisions are more ethical will depend on your definition of what’s ethical.

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  5. rephelan Says:

    Dr. Bruggeman:

    I think we are in fundamental agreement on the nature and existence of a problem in the world of scientific blogging. All three articles you linked to were primarily exercises in Bush-bashing rather than substantive discussions of bioethics or even the propriety of a President appointing his own ethics advisors. That, by the way, was the point of my ironical/rhetorical question about which body was the more ethical. It elicited from you exactly the right follow on question “What is ethical?”.

    Bush’s board and Obama’s board will disagree on the question. The statement issued by the Hastings Center was as much a political statement as it was a statement on ethics, an attempt to influence public policy in a particular direction. In a very real sense, the appointment of a Presidential Commission on Ethics (any kind of ethics) is a political move to provide a fig-leaf to justify the policies the President wishes to pursue. Is it ethical for an ethicist to serve on such a body? At the same time, is an ethicist obliged to actively promote through the political process the ethics to which he subscribes?

    I was attracted to read your posting by the title and was hoping to find it more substantive.

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  7. David Bruggeman Says:

    First you don’t understand me, now we’re in fundamental agreement? Color me skeptical.

    The articles weren’t exercises in Bush-bashing. They would have been teased in the same fashion had it been any other party-switching Presidential transition.

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  9. rephelan Says:

    Dr. Bruggeman:

    I’m not sure just which hue on my palette is skeptical, but I’m pretty sure it’s not payne’s grey, yellow ochre or even alizarin crimson. What I am sure of is that three of the four major points in your last post are untrue (actually four out of four, but I’ll deal with that toward the end). Somewhat out of order:

    “The articles weren’t exercises in Bush-bashing”
    “…the current members of the President’s Council on Bioethics were appointed by George W. Bush, and will serve until the charter for the council expires in September. The critique, in effect, is an echo from the past.”

    “Moreover, there were serious ethical problems with the Bush policy, as a Hastings Center report from last year determined…”
    “…the current members of the President’s Council on Bioethics were appointed by George W. Bush, and will serve until the charter for the council expires in September. The critique, in effect, is an echo from the past.”

    Ten members of the White House bioethics advisory board appointed by George W. Bush have slammed the president’s stem cell decision, taking issue with Obama’s characterization of Bush’s 2001 decision. The center-left Center for American Progress has his back.
    “They would have been teased in the same fashion had it been any other party-switching Presidential transition”

    I don’t have the statistics or citations to “prove” this statement wrong but I suspect one of us would be really unhappy with the empirical evidence. These articles were disparaging the conservative agenda. If a conservative President were to succeed President Obama, the same types of headlines would still be disparaging a conservative agenda. In fact, a perusal of the literature in 2000 and 2001 would bear me out on this. If you would like to collaborate with me on a serious examination of this question, I’d be honored to participate. Marquis of Queensbury rules.

    “First you don’t understand me”
    Actually, I DO understand you, professor, and I was giving you the opportunity to back off from an indefensible political statement, i.e. that there can be no suggestion that The One can be criticized, or that there may be merit to any criticism that may happen to find its way into the public purview. Your objection was that the titles might lead the ignorant and unenlightened to conclude that there may well be reasons to question the new policy.

    Finally, fundamental agreement: in a sense, you are implying that the Bush ethicists can’t be credited because they were appointed by a conservative. I am arguing that ethics advice from any sort of rump group should be discounted. My personal position on stem-cells and reproductive technologies that end up discarding viable embryos probably should not be dominating the public debate, but I really resent being dismissed as an anti-science crank. I think we ARE in agreement that a President’s choice of ethics advisors should not put paid to the discussion and real ethicists should be criticizing from the outside. Identifying one as a positivist, constructionist, relativist or utilitarian should not disqualify them from the discussion. Or are we in fundamental disagreement?

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  11. David Bruggeman Says:

    We are in fundamental disagreement. I think it’s perfectly fine for a President to appoint ethics advisers, and you don’t. Rump groups are perfectly free to speak their mind. I have made no statement about the relative validity of either President’s stem cell policies.

    I am not criticizing the ethics statement, but the coverage of it. The statement was a valid one to make, and while there could have been a clearer declaration of whether or not it was an ‘official’ statement of the Council, I have no problem with them doing it.

    The other articles I cited did not engage in Bush bashing, and the Science Progress article was critical of the Bush statement. Whether that constitutes bashing will probably vary from person to person reading it.