Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 13:11:12 EDT

Steve, I think your reading of the President's speech is flat-out wrong, or
at least naive. He asserts that the signing of this order is

about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about letting scientists like
those who are here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion,
and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient --
especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data
is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda -- and that we
make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

It is crystal clear from this part of the speech that the President is
defining the decision about human embryonic stem cell research as a
"scientific decision" that should be free from "ideology." Further, it is
implied, if not directly stated, that those who oppose this research on
moral grounds are engaged in "manipulation" and "coercion," are not letting
the scientists "do their jobs," and are blocking "free and open inquiry" in
service of a "political agenda." Could the message be any more plain?

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 12:47 PM, Stephen Matheson <>wrote:

> 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 you are absolutely right that this is
> a false 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
> <>
> wrote:
>> 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?
>> Doug

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Received on Tue Mar 10 13:11:41 2009

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