Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: Stephen Matheson <>
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 12:47:56 EDT

Doug has misquoted the president. His remarks are available online, and those
who take the time to actually read them will discover that while the brief
statement does oversimplify the relationship between scientific "facts" and
"ideology," it most certainly does not make the claim that "public policy
should be based on scientific facts not ideology." And, David, I just don't
see how someone could claim that the president implied that "science" has made
any determinations about personhood. I find these to be careless
mischaracterizations of the president's words.

A reasonably careful reading of the statement reveals a more interesting
tension, in my opinion. (Links below.)

First, President Obama claims that the policy of the Bush administration
"forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral
values." This statement, and its amplification, makes it very clear that Obama
does not separate "ideology" or moral judgment from scientific facts. If he's
making an error here, it's in his characterization of the Bush doctrine as
forcing a "false choice." In my opinion, the difference between Bush's
position and Obama's (specifically wrt stem cell research) is a difference in a
moral judgment and not in a view of the relationship between sound science and
moral values. Bush (and many others) believes that one cannot morally pursue
the research in question and thus that the issue of its scientific soundness is
irrelevant. Obama believes that one can morally pursue the experiments. Obama
should not have claimed that there was a "false choice"; he should have simply
remained focused on the fact that he and others reject the moral position of
the Bush position. In the statement, Obama does just this, quite clearly and
fairly in my opinion, and was unwise to speak of a "false choice."

Second, the event we're discussing here had a two-fold purpose, with both goals
related to the practice of science. One purpose: to fully fund ES cell
research, in line with an asserted societal consensus of some kind. Second
purpose: to take steps to ensure that political preferences exert far less
influence on the interpretation and presentation of scientific information than
they did under the previous administration. The New York Times is conflating
these two purposes, and coverage like theirs is probably contributing
significantly to the misconstrual of Obama's words by folks on this list. The
Times lead reads as follows:

"Pledging that his administration will “make scientific decisions based on
facts, not ideology,” President Obama on Monday lifted the Bush
administration’s strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research."

I find that to be a disturbing misrepresentation of the action and the
president's remarks. Read them yourself, and I think you'll see that there is
a clear distinction made between these two different goals, and (to me) a clear
transition point where the president moves from one to the other. NPR, by the
way, reported the story accurately, and is now focusing on the political
ramifications of Obama's moves in the arena of reproductive politics, noting
that he may be moving away from the "middle ground" that he seemed to stake out
during the campaign.

For my part, I thought the comments on the "false choice" were unwise, though
they belie the claim of others here that Obama believes that facts alone will
guide policy decisions. And I think it was a mistake to combine these two
goals. It probably seemed smart to address them together, since both are seen
as needed pro-science moves, but seeing the ludicrous coverage of the NYT makes
me think I'm not the only one who now wishes the two had been uncoupled.

Steve Matheson

NY Times story:
Text of Obama's speech (at NY Times)

>>> David Opderbeck <> 03/10/09 8:59 AM >>>
Yes, it bothers me immensely. I think yfalse dichotomy, particularly in the human embryonic stem cell research
context. It is also, I think, a classic example of scientism. The implication
is that "science" has determined that a human embryo is not a "person" and/or
that some utilitarian calculus warrants destructively harvesting stem cells
from at least some human embryos. These are conclusions that can be informed,
but not determined, by science. I personally find destructive human embryonic
stem cell research morally horrifying, particularly when cell lines are
harvested from embryos cast off by the IVF industry.

David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Director, Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 8:47 AM, Douglas Hayworth


Note: this is NOT a politics question.

President Obama said yesterday that public policy should be based on scientific
facts not ideology.

think this is an awful statement. It's a false dichotomy. Scientific "facts"
don't make public policy; they form a necessary informational base, but every
action based on that knowledge also requires a moral/ethical/ideological
decision. Scientific facts say we can build nuclear weapons, but our choice to
reduce their proliferation ideological/moral. Scientific facts have shown that
it is possible to clone animals, but we all agree that ideology/morality must
weigh in on public policy decisions relating to cloning. No one disagrees about
the science of the "emergency contraception pill" or stem cell research; the
pill works and stem cell research holds lots of promise. But those scientific
facts in and of themselves are not a sound basis for policy!

Does this misrepresentation of science (which I think is not particuler to
Obama - so don't make this into a political debate) bother anyone else?


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Received on Tue Mar 10 12:48:41 2009

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