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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Science and public policy

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

The flourishing liberal dictum that the public should keep its paws off the funding and practice of science is a serious and dangerous fabrication.

Among liberal rhetoricians, this erroneous diktat blossomed when then-President George W. Bush limited federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. They said Bush and others with moral qualms about destroying human life to advance scientific knowledge were "anti-science." So, when the political left found they could advance their own scientific agenda by painting conservatives as anti-science, the slander became an embedded component of liberal group think. Anyone who opposed the politicalization of climate science or contemplated the nexus of science and theology in theories about evolution were dragged to the guillotine of political correctness. Even those holding secular or humanistic objections were unfairly labeled right-wing religious fanatics, hellbent on imposing their moral paradigm on an unwilling public.

This has to stop if America is to return to a thoughtful, intelligent discussion of scientific issues that are germane to the public interest. The setting of government-funded research priorities and the relationship between the public good and science are very much legitimate grounds for reasonable debate. Liberals once fought government funding for nuclear power research and nuclear weapons testing. They evoked moral, ethical and political considerations in the debate. Did that make them anti-science?

Liberals historically have opposed expenditures on space science, including missions to the moon, based on the non-scientific argument that the money would better be spent on helping people "here on Earth." Did that make liberals anti-science?

Liberals argued that the first claim on the federal health-science dollar should be HIV-related research, when cancer and heart diseases were clearly bigger killers. Did that make liberals anti-science? Then there's human cloning. Is opposing it anti-science?

Of course not. That made them citizens engaged in a proper democratic dialogue. And so are conservatives who disagree with some of the liberal science agenda. Disagreement over the funding of embryonic stem cells is not fundamentally a debate over science. Conservatives who caution against sliding into the easy fabrication and use of human life for research are not challenging the scientific potential of pluripotent embryonic stem cells. But I give an F for scientific literacy to many proponents of embryonic stem-cell funding because they have chosen, for political reasons, to ignore the science that has generated more immediate and promising results from embryonic cord blood and adult stem cells. Worse, instead of engaging in respectful scientific disputation, they disparage those who disagree with them as religious block-heads.

The same sorry spectacle has unfolded in the debate over global warming. Despite scientific evidence that challenges the "conclusion" that the "debate is closed" over climate change, the liberal default position is to label dissidents as anti-science. The science of how to make a nuclear bomb is closed; the intrinsically complicated understanding of the zillion variables in predicting global climate change remains incomplete. Nazis regarded eugenics and exploring the "beneficial" uses of human skin peeled from Holocaust victims as science. They dipped living people into salt water the temperature of the frigid North Atlantic Ocean to find better ways to save the lives of downed Nazi fighter pilots. Would opposing those horrors be considered anti-science?

As a former science and technology writer, I soon concluded that if science can be done, it likely will be done by someone, somewhere, whether it is beneficial to or destructive of individual and societal good. Efforts in a democratic society to encourage, guide, direct or regulate that science is not just a legitimate endeavor, but also a necessary one. If science was conducted in a vacuum, then who should care?

So, now we enter a debate about whether the University of Notre Dame should have scheduled a commencement speech by President Barack Obama because he is an advocate of using public money to fund the destruction of human life for the benefit of "more deserving individuals." Some will bewail the protests, claiming they are anti-science.

From this, we desperately need respite.

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