Needless to say, there is something ugly and hypocritical about glorifying the absolute authority of scientists and sanctimoniously preening about your bravery in “restoring” that authority — and then ignoring the scientists when politically expedient.
But it is bordering on the grotesque to handpick scientists to give you an opinion and then lie about what they actually said and implement a policy they don’t endorse. (According to the Journal, the Interior Department has apologized to the scientists. But the administration refuses to publicly acknowledge it did anything wrong.)
The most important point isn’t about cheap politics and hypocrisy. It’s about the fundamental misunderstanding of the role of science in policymaking.
Obama once told reporters that “the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.”
Putting aside the fact that it now appears many scientists were wrong about the promise of stem cells (at least so far), this is morally deranged. If scientists discovered that experimentation on five-year-old children showed huge promise to cure diseases or solve the energy crisis, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, well, scientists say it’s okay.”
And, no, I’m not arguing that embryos and children are morally equivalent. I’m arguing that the answer to these questions lies in the realm of morality, philosophy, and even theology more than it does in science. Scientists once believed that blacks “deserved” to be slaves and that women shouldn’t work. Were politicians right to defer to the scientific consensus then? Scientists built the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. I wouldn’t expect pacifists to defer uncritically to those scientists’ moral judgments.
Scientists are technicians, not moral philosophers. While they can provide facts that inform good decision-making, they can’t distill morality in a test tube. Politicians shouldn’t abdicate to the guys in white coats their responsibilities to answer moral questions the white-coats can’t answer.
But you know what the white-coats can do? They can tell us whether banning deepwater oil drilling will make us safer. Too bad Obama isn’t listening.
– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.