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Monday, January 22, 2007

Jonah Goldberg, Gay Sheep, and Stem Cells

More Jonah Goldberg. That's my plea to the right -- please, please get more columnists like National Review's Jonah Goldberg. Nothing could do more to doom their cause. Never satisfied to simply make a point, Goldberg seems to feel you have to pound your point into the ground and, in the process, completely destroy your own argument.

Case in point; in his last column, Goldberg argues that medical research into stem cells can continue without destroying embryos. I pretty much called this when I wrote, "Expect the right wingers to ignore this and bring up amniotic stem cell research all the time -- they did the same thing with adult stem cells."

The 'this' that the wingers will ignore are the words of amniotic stem cell researcher, Anthony Atala:

"Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion," wrote Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University, the author of a study published this week and widely seized upon by opponents of embryonic stem cell research as a more moral option.


In a letter to sponsors of legislation up for a House vote tomorrow, Atala wrote that it was "essential that National Institutes of Health-funded researchers are able to fully pursue embryonic stem cell research as a complement to research into other forms of stem cells."

Amniotic stem cells show as much promise as embryonic stem cells. How many ways are there to treat cancer? To abandon one line of research because another shows promise makes as much sense as dropping all cancer research in favor of chemotherapy.

But that's just dishonesty -- a lie by omission. Just as he neglects to mention that embryos used for research would be destroyed anyway, he misrepresents amniotic stem cell research. Nothing new there, it's what we've come to expect from rightie columnists. But like I say, Goldberg thinks he needs to hammer his point into the ground. That's when things really get crazy.

Suddenly, the side of the argument that embraces such solid facts as global warming denial, creationism, and a 6,000 year old Earth have science on their side.

National Review:

But it appears that Hermes (the Greek god of science) is proving to be a fickle ally. New research shows that there are other, perhaps more promising, sources of “pluripotent” cells (i.e., ones that can become any other cell) that don’t involve destroying embryos. Wake Forest researchers found rich sources of stem cells in simple amniotic fluid. Pro-lifers are now using this research to cast themselves as the true allies of science. Hermes’s sword, it seems, has a double edge.

Correction, pro-lifers are now using the Wake Forest study as a PR tool, ignoring what the researchers themselves say. And 'perhaps more promising' is a really crappy argument for abandoning an entire line of research. The father of the US (and nazi) rocket program, Wernher Von Braun, once said, "Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing." In other words, you do research into what you don't know.

Science, as Goldberg seems to understand it, is the search for pleasant truths. Unpleasant truths should be ignored. Although he writes, "Science is morally neutral," he doesn't really seem to believe it. Science for Goldberg -- and far too many americans -- is the magic creator of Frankenstein's monster on one hand and the finder of cures for diseases on the other. What science actually is is no more than separating the true from the untrue. Goldberg's beef isn't with science, he just thinks there are things people should always be ignorant of. He writes:

Embryonic-stem-cell research, however, has changed the focus of that argument because, for reasons good and bad, ESCR advocates want to stop talking about those who are pro-life and start calling their opponents “anti-science,” as if being anti-science — whatever that means — is an immoral stance.

See, here's the problem; if science is the search for truth, then being anti-science is logically synonymous with being anti-truth. And, yeah, that's immoral. Science is neutral because facts are neutral.

Toward the end (with Goldberg it's usually around the middle -- he's getting to be a procrastinator), he goes off into goofy argument land.

Slate’s William Saletan recently chronicled how the age of retail eugenics has arrived. Gender-selective abortion is commonplace in the developing world. In the developed West, we’re more selective at the embryonic level. For example, a handful of deaf parents are deliberately selecting embryos that will become deaf — and doctors are helping.

Meanwhile, researchers at Oregon State University recently revealed that hormone treatments can reverse homosexuality in sheep. Predictably, lesbian activist Martina Navratilova and others complained that the sheep’s “right” to be gay was being violated. While no one called Navratilova “anti-science,” it’s not hard to see the slippery slope she’s concerned about.

See, here's the problem; none of this has anything to do with stem cells, embryonic, amniotic, or otherwise. In trying to find an example of stem cell science gone mad, he came up empty, so he throws a bunch of crazy stuff at you and hopes you don't notice he's lost the thread. In fact, wait a few weeks and he'll be arguing that homosexuality is a 'lifestyle choice' again, ignoring that he said here that '"pro-science" champions may soon see a world where homosexuality is eradicated in utero..."

Let me boil this argument (such as it is) down for you; a 'handful' of deaf people are deafening their children, people in India are practicing sex-selective abortion, and Oregon State is 'curing' gay sheep. Therefore, embryonic stem cell reasearch should be abandoned.

Make any sense to you?


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Aristus said...

I enjoy your commentary, Wisco, but I have to disagree here.

I think there is really only one bone of contention: you don't believe that embryos should be given the same rights as a baby, and he does. Everything else is sound+fury.

I can't say how defensible the corollaries of either position are. Banning abortion is indefensible: in order to save a fetus we turn the mother around it into a criminal. Banning fertility research and other lines that radiate from its by-products is equally stupid/futile/etc.

On the other hand I think it's presumptuous to say at what point a fetus has rights or not. The usual Solomon-point is at "viabilty", but that line moves earlier each year. It's also double standard: we no longer put a mirror to a patient's lips, do we? Death is now defined as cessation of brain activity, but life is still defined as free breathing.

Please re-examine your arguments. You accuse this person of building their argument out of crazy assumptions, mortared by sloppy thinking. But you do the same: you assume there are only two sides, cloud the issue, and even indulge in character assasination:

"Suddenly, the side of the argument that embraces such solid facts as global warming denial, creationism, and a 6,000 year old Earth have science on their side."

Does Goldberg deny global warming, believe in creationism and Bishop Usher's age of the Earth? Can you back that up? If so, what possible bearing does that have on the actual issue at hand?

Wisco said...

Calling Jonah Goldberg a nutjob isn't so much 'character assassination' as it is using the word correctly.

What's being missed here -- and what Goldberg deliberately glosses over -- is that the embryos (or, more accurately, blastocysts) will be destroyed, whether or not they're used for research. Following the line of logic that destroying an embryo is taking a life, we have to come to the conclusion that in vitro fertilization is an ongoing holocaust. Most of the blastocysts developed by in vitro are thrown away.

Oddly, you never hear people like Goldberg getting all bent out of shape over that.

Aristus said...

There are people all over the spectrum, and some of them do not take things to their logical conclusions because they sound too loopy to the people they are trying to convince. Others just like to stir up trouble for personal gain.

But that's beside the point. You made specific claims that a) you have not backed up and b) are irrelevant in any case. Forgive me, but I find it hard to believe that a man named Goldberg subscribes to fundie Christian dogma, or that it has anything to do with the actual moral questions at hand.

I have no opinion of this character one way or another. But if you are going to wrap yourself in the labcoat, so to speak, you can't use the same sloppy tricks as the people you are criticising.

Wisco said...

Goldberg's argument isn't beside the point; to a certain extent, it is the point. What Goldberg believes or doesn't believe is beside the point - in fact, I'd be willing to bet that he writes a lot of stuff that he doesn't believe.

But he couches his argument in the language of 'pro-choice v. pro-life.' He's taking the pro-life side here and that side of the argument -- as I wrote -- is chock full of creationists and young earthers. The same people who write checks to 'creation museums' also write checks to Operation Rescue.

And by ignoring what the researcher who's study he cites actually has to say about embryonic stem cell research, Goldberg out and out lies. He says science is on his side, when the opposite is true. He argues in favor of ignorance.

Aristus said...

Well put, and I agree. I was objecting to you using the same rhetorical tricks as your target. You have to be careful not to respond in a way that validates your opponents' assumptions. By lumping "them" into a bucket, you lump "us" into another, with nothing outside. I am sure you did not intend that but it happened.

Not every medical advance can be gained Saulk-style with a bottle of formaldehyde and no moral pitfalls. We condemned Mengele but I notice we didn't burn his papers.

Pro-lifers have a point that the current ethical standard is inconsistent with itself and also their beliefs. The pro-choicers have a point that the current system damages the fewest living, breathing people.

It's a pretty problem and it has more than two sides. So let's start from there instead of going off into the woods.