Responsible Science, Irresponsible Pundits

Think Progress has a nice post about Glenn Beck's comments on Obama's stem cell order.

BECK: So here you have Barack Obama going in and spending the money on embryonic stem cell research, and then some, fundamentally changing – remember, those great progressive doctors are the ones who brought us Eugenics. It was the progressive movement and it science. Let’s put science truly in her place. If evolution is right, why don’t we just help out evolution? That was the idea. And sane people agreed with it!

And it was from America. Progressive movement in America. Eugenics. In case you don’t know what Eugenics led us to: the Final Solution. A master race! A perfect person. …. The stuff that we are facing is absolutely frightening. So I guess I have to put my name on yes, I hope Barack Obama fails. But I just want his policies to fail; I want America to wake up.

 It's pretty hard to parse this rant and find anything like an argument in it, but he seems be suggesting:

1. Progressives advocated eugenics in the past.

2. Eugenics led us to the Final Solution and to goal of creating a master race and a perfect person.

3. Obama is a progressive.

4 [Implicit, I guess] It is likely that Obama as a progressive will advocate eugenics which will lead to the Master RAce.

5. Therefore, Obama's executive order should be opposed.

That's just the best that I can make out of the addled thoughts of Beck. He seems to fallaciously argue by analogy from Obama being a progressive and supporting stem cell research to the likelihood that Obama is endorsing eugenics, and therefore, slippery slopily, will end up supporting the Master Race.

The factual ignorance underlying this argument is staggering. All that Obama has done is reverse the limitation of the use of federal funds to the 20 or so lines that were already in existence at the time Bush signed his 2001 order:

To the delight of patients’ groups and scientists, the order will allow research on hundreds of stem cell lines already in existence, as well as ones yet to be created, typically from embryos left over from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded. (NYT, 3/8/09)

There is little reason to believe that this will initiate the slippery slope to the Master Race.

It is interesting to compare this argument with Krauthammer's more measured slippery slope argument against research cloning of embryos. (The fullest version was in the New Republic (there's a link here to it)). There he argues only that there is a need for some line to be drawn that protects embryos from being reduced to mere material and that the line is reasonably drawn at research cloning (creating embryos for research purposes)).

Setting aside the fact that the Obama's executive order does not authorize funding for research cloning (research cloning is not illegal in the US, though the use of federal funds for it is banned by the Dickey-Wicker amendment originally passed in the mid-90's), it seems possible to me to argue that there is some slipperiness to the slope and that at some point we may find ourselves having allowed morally disturbing cases. But, if the argument depends on the likelihood of this being the first step in an ineluctable process to the Master Race, then that just seems intellectually irresponsible at best.

2 thoughts on “Responsible Science, Irresponsible Pundits”

  1. I’ve heard this argument again and again; I think you’re right: there is no basis to suggest that this all leads to the “final solution”.
    However, in my opinion, embryonic stem-cell research is morally wrong. Does that make me an anti-science villain? If I don’t want my tax-money spent on it; does it mean that I’m trying to politicize science? Does that make me a terrorist (a la Chris Matthews) ? Does that mean I’m supporting irresponsible scienceĀ  (as your title might suggest) ? Am I being “divisive” ?

    For some, this is just a scientific issue; for others, this is a moral and civic issue.

  2. I think Yuval Levin represented a similar point nicely yesterday in the Wapo

    He argues that the absence of a recognition that these are not simply scientific questions is troubling and suggest a faith in a technocratic solution to what are really ethical and political questions. I tend to agree with the concern in the abstract I think. I’m not sure, however, that the NIH or the Sec H&HS is going to abstract from ethical and political questions. Nor, do I think that an exec. order that recognizes the authority of congress to express political and ethical views through the legislative process and which calls for “responsible research” is suggesting the technocratic a-political approach that concerns Levin) . But, I certainly agree that there are ethical questions here.

    As I tried to suggest, Krauthammer offers a responsible argument for his claim that research cloning is wrong that is homologous to Beck’s. Krauthammer’s view I think is reasoned and coherent. There may be other reasonable and coherent arguments against other forms of embryonic stem cell research (i.e. against the Bush exception for the 20 or so lines, or the 100’s of lines that were previously created from embryos that will soon be able to be used with federal funds, or the creation of new lines from discarded embryos). I’d need to look at the particular argument to judge it. But, I’m comfortable saying that Beck’s argument is fatuous and Krauthammer’s similar argument is responsible and reasonable.

    My title only meant to play on the irresponsibility of Beck in claiming that stem cell research would somehow be responsible for a new final solution, as well as contrasting what O. wrote in his order in calling for “responsible scientific research in stem cells”–I take “responsible” there to mean “morally responsible” (though perhaps Levin would say that I assume too much in that). Perhaps it was a poor title.

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