A little over a year ago, Pres. Barack Obama reversed George W. Bush’s restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research.
Just for the record, Bush didn’t “ban” embryonic-stem-cell research, as so many critics claimed, and he didn’t restrict non-embryonic-stem-cell research at all. He merely ruled that scientists who receive federal funding shouldn’t create any new embryonic-stem-cell lines, because creating life to destroy it is unethical and immoral.
This view, according to Obama (and Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, the New York Times, et al.), was unscientific. Hence, his administration would “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” This language was a carryover from the presidential campaign, when all of the Democratic candidates bemoaned the Neanderthal “Republican war on science,” to borrow a phrase from a popular liberal book.
Hillary Clinton, for instance, promised that her administration would “restore scientific integrity by supporting the independent work of government scientists” and end the “open season on open inquiry.”
For good or for ill, Obama beat Hillary for the nomination, but he carried the “liberals love science” torch nonetheless. At his inauguration, he pledged, “We will restore science to its rightful place.”
Fast-forward to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The White House issued a blanket moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. Obama cited a report commissioned by the Interior Department that purported to recommend the ban.
“The recommendations contained in this report,” declared the document, “have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering.”
Except that was untrue. In fact, it was such a glaring lie that the seven engineers who peer-reviewed an earlier version of the document felt obliged to come forward to clear the air.
“The Secretary should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct,” wrote the scientists, “but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions.”
The draft these experts saw was substantively different from the document that bore their names. The draft called for a moratorium on issuing new permits, not stopping existing drilling (a move many experts believe would be unsafe).
One of the experts, Benton Baugh, president of Radoil, told the Wall Street Journal that if the draft had said to halt drilling, “we’d have said ‘that’s craziness.’”
Now, the experts are absolutely right that the White House is under no obligation to listen to them. Temporarily banning deepwater drilling might be the right call (I briefly thought it was myself). But it’s a political call.
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.