From Liberty Street: America and Science

I wish everyone could read Michael Specter's article in the March 13th New Yorker, titled "Political Science: The Bush Administration's War on the Laboratory." The current presidential administration has done so much damage to our nation that no one will ever be able to give a complete assessment of it. But if a competent effort were made it's likely the greatest harm would be seen as coming from the repression of scientific discovery. Mr. Specter gives a good survey of how that has been working over the past five years.

He begins with the probability that there will be resistance to using a new treatment against HPV, which is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Most of its effects are only serious annoyances. But the disease in some cases does cause cancer and eventually death. The new medicine could prevent the great majority of those deaths. David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, says "We should be proud and excited. It has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year."

Even so, there will be resistance to recommending the medicine from members of the "Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices" not because the drug carries dangerous side effects but because they don't like sex and, consequently, they don't want to approve anything that might cause people to feel safer about sex outside marriage. It's similar to the argument that has been brought forward against condoms.

We have to start calling arguments of this sort what they are. They are not religious. They have nothing to do with faith or morality. They're just pure insanity.

The president's case against stem cell research is of the same nature. Mr. Bush wants to play up to people who say that a fertilized egg is a human being. Perhaps he believes it himself, which only makes it worse. Serious questions do arise when a pregnant woman, who has reached the stage that her fetus has feelings and is near  being able to survive outside the womb, decides she does not want to carry it to term. But there are no such questions about eggs within a few days of their being inseminated. A human life comes into being through a complicated series of procedures which, at the very least, involves the creation of the egg and the sperm which help it along its way. There is no magic moment when it happens. To say that moment occurs long before anything resembling a human being is in existence is fanaticism. And, then, to go to the point of maintaining that such tiny combinations of cells should not be used to find cures for serious disorders, even when those combinations are not going to be allowed to develop into human beings, is not only fanatical, it's monstrous. People who make arguments of that kind are in exactly the same category as those who say, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." For modern nation to allow itself to be prohibited from vital medical and scientific research by foolishness of that kind is rank cowardice. There's no more excuse for being cowed by a supposed religious belief in this case than there would be for permitting ritual murder.

Yet pre-scientific attitudes, which have no standing in rationality, continue to be given political respect in this country. It's probably not too much to say that a considerable portion of our population is afflicted by a hatred of science. That means that those who are not so afflicted have a duty, to their own intellectual integrity and to their nation, to expose superstitious arguments for what they are.

The evidence is clear that the United States is slipping behind other nations in its preparation for a future that will be shaped by advanced scientific research. Specter presents startling numbers about the extent of scientific preparation in America as compared with other countries. The economic effects of this disparity will become ever sharper in the coming decades. But economic prosperity is of secondary concern when we consider scientific development. A nation and a people which have no genuine appreciation for scientific knowledge will become trivial with respect to progress and dangerous with respect to politics during the 21st Century. What's at stake is our national character. And despite a few rhetorical flourishes, the Bush administration is leading us towards disgrace in this essential arena of human endeavor.

Comment Received:

The Taliban in Afghanistan were Mohammed-Nazis. George Bush and his stooges are Christ-Nazis. Nazis of all stripes decide who will live and who will die. Nazis state that 1 + 1 = 3, and if you disagree, they will do their utmost to ruin your life, if not kill you. Religion-Nazis are afraid of science and logic. They want to use ancient religious documents that are full of contradictions and are relevent to absolutely nothing in the modern world. They yearn for an America that is populated by Christians only. They yearn for the "good 'ol days". They yearn for 1692....Salem,Masachusetts.

- - Anonymous

Comment on this Article:
Please enter your comment below and then click the "submit" button. Your name and contact information is requested. We will publish your name and city, but will only publish your contact information by your request.

Return to the Table of Contents

Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts