Monday, January 26, 2009

"Sound science" vs. "rigid ideology"

President Obama has done a good thing. The complaints against him sound like my students complaining about not being allowed to turn in late work--both desperate and unconvincing. Why would environmental requirements be costly to auto companies when Toyota has proven that automotive cleanliness is a huge marketing boon? Why would car companies have to manufacture a different car to meet each state's requirements rather than a single model that conforms to all of them?

But this is not really a blog post about cars, the environment, or the laws governing them. This is a post about political language. I was delighted to see that the link I clicked, titled "Obama: 'Rigid Ideology Has Overruled Sound Science'", was about cars, and not about what I feared: embryonic stem cell research. Most of us that follow such things understand by now that "sound science" in the political realm is code for embryonic stem cell research.

Everyone, at arguably the most important time of their life, has been an embryo. We do not come from embryos, any more than we "come from" our infant, toddler, or teenage selves. We all were them. There is no discontinuity, biologically or ontologically, between that tiny bundle of cells and the first African American president it would become.

But, common sense aside, witness the power of words--such as the words of President Obama when he declared in his inagural speech that he would "put science in its rightful place." What is the rightful place of science? The revelation I received in Leuven was, years ago, that science itself does not answer that question. And if science, the only legitimate source of enforceable legislative truth, is silent on the question of its own "rightful place", then there is only one answer remaining to fill the void:

The rightful place of science is whatever we want it to be.

It is a fair wager that the next time President Obama invokes the dramatic language of "sound science" versus "rigid ideology", it will not be for such a benign purpose as environmental responsibility. Both terms are wildcards of immense political cash value. Does the technological data surrounding embryonic research teach a doctrine on whether it is right to do so? No? Then whence our answer? It seems we will be given two options: the gilded prose of a polished man who promises it is good, and "rigid ideology"; i.e., any belief structure that disagrees with him.

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