TCS Daily

Sweet Banquet of the Mind Turns Sour

By Sydney Smith - April 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Increasingly it seems that we have completely lost the art of that "sweet banquet of the mind" --polite discourse. Too often too many of us can couch no disagreement without resorting to name calling and temper tantrums. An art critic disagrees with an actor's cinematic portrayal of the death of Christ, and rather than centering his criticism on the substance of the movie, he insinuates that the actor is anti-Semitic. A presidential candidate disagrees with his opponent's policies, and admits that he can't think of him as a fellow man. Some of this is inevitable. They're only human, after all. But, still, is it too much to expect a higher level of tolerance and respect in the public arena?

If any place should be an enclave of polite discourse, you would think it would be those advisory councils that exist at the discretion of the White House and Congress to give advice on scientific matters. Peopled with academics, tasked with interpreting the state of current science and thinking, such bodies should, in theory, be above the fray. But apparently, that would be expecting too much.

At least it's expecting too much for the President's Council on Bioethics. The council consists of scientists, lawyers, doctors, and philosophers. Surely, these people are used to debating issues on substance without resorting to name calling. Surely, they would be capable of respecting one another even if they hold different opinions. But according to Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a respected cell biologist and former Council member, the Council is a place where no dissent is countenanced; and its head, Dr. Leon Kass, a virtual Torquemada.

In last week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, in the online journal Public Library of Science Biology, and in media interviews, Dr. Blackburn painted the Council as stacked with ideologues, accused them of distorting scientific research for political ends, of espousing conservative views of childrearing, and of holding the view that medical research is somehow "not what God intended, that there is something unnatural about it." Scientists are quaking in fear, according to her New England Journal piece, afraid to testify before the Council for fear that their testimony will be twisted to deny the human race the benefits of embryonic stem cell research.

But on closer inspection, it's Dr. Blackburn who appears to be the ideologue who can not brook any dissent. Dr. Blackburn only voiced her complaints after she learned that her two year term to the Council would not be renewed. She has stated publicly and frequently that she had misgivings about joining the Council in the first place, having already assumed that it would be closed minded. To her open mind, the dismissal only confirmed those fears. She's convinced the only reason for her dismissal is that her views are diametrically opposed to Dr. Kass's. She has proof, too. The termination came on a Friday afternoon, when it would be missed by the sleeping media, a favored tactic, she has often pointed out, of the Bush Administration. (Apparently, Dr. Blackburn spends most of her time in her lab and so is unaware how widespread that tactic is.)

But, as Salon's Farhad Manjoo reported, the reality is different. To begin with, records show that Dr. Blackburn was often absent from the Council meetings. In fact, she missed over half of them. More damning, not one Council member -- even those who agree with Dr. Blackburn's opinions on stem cell research -- would confirm her version of the Council or its chairman. Several went so far as to "praise" Kass's management. And indeed, the Council reports that come under special criticism from Dr. Blackburn, Beyond Therapy and Monitoring Stem Cell Research, read as reasoned, informative critiques of the state of the art of bioscience and the ethical questions that the science sparks. There is nothing in either paper about how to raise children. There is no favor given to adult stem cell research over embryonic stem cell research. The papers even respectfully acknowledge disagreements among Council members. From Monitoring Stem Cell Research:

"At the same time, all discussion in this area suffers from a persistent background tension. The stakes are high, or seem so, to many of the discussants, and there is much politicking involved. As noted earlier, opponents of embryo research try to tout the virtues of adult stem cells, because they regard their use as a morally permissible alternative. Proponents, for their part, often find it tempting to disparage or downplay all adult stem cell studies and to emphasize instead what they believe to be the superior potential of embryonic stem cells for successful future therapeutic use. Navigating between these tendencies in search of the full truth can be daunting, and few people are altogether immune to the partial but seductive calls from the scientific or moral side they prefer."

So what, exactly, is Dr. Blackburn's beef? Is it just sour grapes at being denied continued tenure on the Council? Or is it that she can not tolerate any views other than her own? Kass told Salon that "only on one point did we not accept Dr. Blackburn's own suggestions for change: Dr. Blackburn wanted the scientific chapter to issue in a political conclusion, namely, that we now know that embryonic stem cells are more valuable than adult stem cells. But we felt that the scientific evidence to date makes such a conclusion premature at best." And in a telling footnote in the stem cell monograph, some discordance peeks through:

"Nearly all Members of this Council recognize, as we said in our report Human Cloning and Human Dignity, that 'all parties to this debate have something vital to defend, something vital not only to themselves but also to their opponents in the debate, and indeed to all human beings..."

In the context of Dr. Blackburn's dismissal and subsequent scornful vengeance, that "nearly all" speaks volumes.

The mission of the Bioethics Council is to inquire into "the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology", to "explore specific ethical and policy questions related to these developments, and to "provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues." Such a task requires open minds and respectful discourse. Judging from all objective evidence, the Council appears to be fulfilling that mission. As another Council member, Rebecca Dresser, a professor of law at Washington University told Salon, "This has been the most interesting intellectual experience I have ever had. That's because it's so diverse in terms of moral views and related political views."

Unfortunately for some minds, that kind of diversity of views and opinions is just too rich a banquet.

Sydney Smith is a family physician who has been in private practice since 1991. She is board certified by the American Board of Family Practice, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice. She is the publisher of MedPundit. She recently wrote for TCS about Health Care for the Little Guy.


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