Special training to cling to the daftest ideas

Alok Jha on a failure of rationality.

You wonder sometimes if government ministers get special training to cling to the daftest ideas. The dogged attempts of Caroline Flint, the public health minister, to ban the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for stem cell research is a case in point. Her opposition, based on a biased public consultation that was hijacked by lobby groups, presupposes that the public feels ethically dubious about it.

That’s a pretty familiar phenomenon, I think – you get it in journalism a lot too. Caring reporters on NPR and the BBC often simply take it for granted that all this kind of research [caring voice] ‘raises serious ethical issues’ – even when it’s not a bit obvious why it should or in fact that it does. They just assume it does; that is, like the health minister, they presuppose it. It’s as if they’ve had special training to presuppose it. Why is that? one wonders.

I heard a particularly exasperating example on the World Service a few weeks ago, when one of the reporters talked to a researcher about cloning. The reporter kept asking about the risks of eating cloned animals and the researcher kept, patiently, correcting him: it’s not cloned animals that would be eaten, it’s the offspring of cloned animals. The reporter finally said yes yes, he got it, then as soon as the interview was terminated he recapped: issues about eating cloned animals. Journalists are really terrible about this stuff – they get it wrong to begin with and then they apparently can’t even absorb corrections. So we can be quite assured that all these controversies and issues are based on garbled reports of the subject at best. At worst they’re based on distorted or tendentious reports.

The science minister, Malcolm Wicks, warned against basing important policy on inaccurate public polls. He told the inquiry: “If certain lines of inquiry are not pursued, that has to be on rational scientific grounds; it must not be for other factors which lack rationality.”…Will this self-proclaimed pro-science government go with rationality, or will it allow the hysteria of the anti-science brigade to hobble a critical part of our medical future?

I would put Wicks’s point somewhat differently, since ethics can’t be purely rational. There has to be a combination of rational scientific grounds and ethical consideration, is what I would say. You could have rational scientific grounds for, say, preferring freshly-killed children for a certain kind of research, which would be trumped by ethical considerations that are not purely rational. They’re not purely rational but they have a rational component, and that’s why the rest of us find the purely irrational objections of some religious critics to (say) stem-cell research so frustrating – there is no rational component. The missing rational component is replaced by a Yuk factor that, Leon Kass famously claimed, we should respect, because it’s pointing at something real even if we can’t articulate it. The hell it is. A puddle of cells in a dish does not have the same kind of ethical standing that a child (or an animal) does. There are rational scientific grounds for saying that: the puddle of cells has no nervous system, no consciousness, no awareness. That fact is a component of well-conducted ethical thinking, which has to take facts into account. That’s probably what Wicks meant…

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