Thursday, August 30, 2007

Science, Faith, and Stem Cells (Introduction) [Serge]

What makes a statement scientific?

In many public policy debates regarding bioethics, the opposing sides are often referred to as the "religious" or faith based side and the "scientific" side. In the area of ESCR, this is clearly the case. Those who promote the destruction of human embryos for research are seen as using "scientific" arguments, while those who promote the idea that human beings should be protected regardless of their stage of development use "religious" or faith based arguments. As I will show in a series of posts, this assumption is simply incorrect.

So what makes a particular statement scientific? Many believe that a scientific statement is one that is made by a single or group of scientists. However, it is easily demonstrated that such a view is clearly false. Scientists are capable of making many statements that are not based on science, and non-scientists can make statements completely based on science. For example, when my young son states that the earth rotates around its axis and revolves around the son, he is making a scientific statement. His lack of formal education (compounded by the fact that his science teacher is the writer of this post) does not disqualify his statement from being scientific.

Since I wish to give my opponents the benefit of the doubt, I will use a definition of science given by one of the most ardent supporters of ESCR (who also is one of our most vocal critics). Chris Mooney is an editor at Seed Magazine, blogger, and author of The Republican War on Science. Here is what he says about the definition of science (p14.)

Most crucial is defining science itself. The science may provide us with rock-solid facts, these facts, in and of themselves, do not constitute science. Instead, science amounts to a process - institutionalized at leading universities, research facilities, and scientific journals worldwide - for systematically pursuing knowledge about nature and, in the social sciences, ourselves. As its core, this process features the testing and retesting of hypotheses to ensure that they withstand the most withering scrutiny.
There are some problems with this definition, especially the part that I did not emphasize. The reason is that his definition of the scientific process itself cannot be tested and retested to withstand scrutiny. Nevertheless, I will accept his definition of science in that is consists of statements about the real world that are testable, verifiable, and provisional.

Furthermore, Mooney makes a statement about what institutes the abuse or politicalization of science on page 17. I like finding common ground with my opponents, and I have to agree with him here (with a small caveat):

But what does it mean to politicize science? What constitutes political science "abuse" in the first place? Here is my definition: any attempt to inappropriately undermine, alter, or otherwise interfere with the scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or ideological reasons.
There is a problem with his use of the term scientific process here (which as I explained earlier cannot be tested), but I certainly agree that undermining, altering, or interfering with scientific conclusions would be politicizing science. I need to repeat that the term scientific conclusion is not merely an opinion of a scientist, but a scientific conclusion testable, supported by empirical evidence, and able to withstand scrutiny.

In future posts, I wish to show that by using the definition of science, it is the supporters of ESCR and human cloning who have repeatedly "politicized" scientific conclusions and evidence, while the pro-life view is actually the one most supported by the science.

Lastly, in his preface, Mooney also states something that I can agree with. This should be the driving force of the whole debate:

Restoring the integrity of science to our government and public life will depend on commitments and contributions from all who hold to the Enlightenment inspired belief that, if we can just get the science right, we're at least somewhat more likely to get the policy right as well...
Agreed. Next I will show how we can get the science right.

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