Respect in Scientific Debates

Last week, a local Madison paper ran a story about embryonic and adult stem cell research, much of it done at the University here.  The article was an interesting read, but it was the last couple of paragraphs that truly caught my attention – and ire.

Prior to those paragraphs, the crux of the story is an explanation of stem cell research.  The controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells (cells taken from excess human embryos created through in vitro fertilization) has been well covered.  I do not wish to reiterate here but to say that some opponents of embryonic stem cell research make claims about the utility of adult stem cells (those found in a specific tissue and capable of making only cells in that tissue).  Meanwhile, many scientists believe that embryonic stem cells (capable of making any cell in the body) are more promising for future medical treatments.

After addressing issues in stem cell research, the article ends with a quote from Glenn Grothman, a senator from West Bend.  He says that he would ban embryonic stem cell research due to the greater potential of adult stem cells.  When asked how he came to the conclusion that adult stem cells are more promising, the senator replies, “Common sense.”

This statement alone discredits the scientific work being done with stem cells, but the senator does not stop there.  He adds, “Some people enjoy creating babies to experiment on, but I don’t.”

I won’t spend time addressing the utter absurdity of this statement.  I would, however, like to use it as a jumping off point to discuss the need to eliminate irrational, hurtful, and insulting dialogue from scientific debates.

Science is controversial.  Statements that we now take as fact, such as the earth orbits the sun, were once groundbreaking discoveries surrounded by debate.  This is the nature of scientific discovery.  What is important, especially now when scientific information spreads quickly across the Internet, is that understanding and respect be a part of the scientific dialogue.  Those taking part in the discussion need to understand the issues, present their opinions sensibly and remain open to and respect the viewpoints of others.  Senator Grothman does none of these things.

Let’s assume that the senator’s statements are accurate representations of his opinions (though I remain unconvinced that they are).  Clearly, he does not understand scientific research.  “Common sense” does not satisfy any scientist as reasoning behind a theory.  It actually undermines the scientific process itself in which experimental evidence must support a hypothesis.  Common sense is not experimental evidence.  Ask any graduate student in the life sciences, and they will show you multitudes of results that went against their “common sense” hypotheses.

Senator Grothman also appears unable to present his opinions sensibly.  Unless he truly believes that scientists are interested in creating babies for the sake of experimentation, he belittles both his own viewpoint and the intelligence of others by making this statement.  Many opponents of stem cell research have legitimate criticisms and opinions.  However, these can get lost among the din of outrageous accusations and ridiculous insults.

Finally, it seems clear to me that the senator is unwilling or unable to hear the opinions of those who disagree with him.  His words demonstrate a complete lack of respect and interest in what scientists are actually doing.

I will note here that I do not ignore the problems of scientific communication in this scenario, and I am the first to admit that scientists often do not explain their work well, clearly or at all.  Due to its complexity, science can be hard to describe, and this obstacle needs to be overcome through efforts of scientists and science writers.  Increased scientific communication hopefully will allow people to understand science, ingest it, and use it to create informed opinions and logical discussions.

Everyone need not agree with scientists.  But if people can make an effort to understand the work, and if scientists can do their part to explain it and understand the concerns of the public, perhaps scientific arguments can turn into useful dialogue and respectful cooperation.

That seems like common sense to me.

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5 responses to “Respect in Scientific Debates

  1. Well said! This could also apply to the education field – especially when it comes to politicians who feel they know what’s best for kids just “because they were in school once”. Maybe read the research and talk with actual educators before cutting funding and telling us we aren’t doing our jobs!

  2. I think you raise some great points! It’s sometimes hard to explain to people that hES cells are still the gold standard, even for basic research. Without them, iPS cells probably would still be years down the road.

    Related to your comment on bias — I encountered a similar situation while reporting on a stem cell bill in Georgia, where a congressman sought to ban the use of hES cells because he wanted to make it illegal for people to pursue multiple in vitro pregnancies at once. Apparently, OctoMom inspired this piece of ill-informed legislation. I’m still not sure what banning stem cells has to do with limitations to in vitro work…

  3. A great point of view on a long standing debate. It almost hurts as a member of the media to have to disseminate a comment like the Senator’s, but at least we can point out the flaws in his logic on a platform like this.

  4. Excellent point, Caroline. And a great example of the talking heads problem in journalism, where reporters feel called upon to present both “sides” without necessarily making sense of those sides. Here’s an idea, though. Why don’t you interview the senator for your blog? Find out why he feels this is “common sense” and see if you can add some greater understanding to the issue. It would be a great post.

  5. I agree. Well said.

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