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When Politics Holds Science Hostage

It’s a familiar narrative that pervades our culture: conservatives let their “values” get in the way of scientific advances that affect the health and happiness of our nation. The truth, which David Klinghoffer points out at National Review Online, is that advocacy groups are manipulating the discussion, particularly in the area of stem cell research:

“The Republican war on science” is a catchy phrase coined by journalist Chris Mooney in a 2005 book of the same name. According to the pervasively influential mythology, religious and other conservatives stand athwart medicine — and good science in other fields, too — in a campaign to force their antiquated beliefs on other people.
Well, let’s see now. Successful medical research has tangible results. People are healed, or they are not. From the hype that ESCR has received since 2001, when President Bush limited federal funding for it — a move reversed by President Obama — you might think it has shown the capacity to perform miracles. If so, you’ve been deceived.
Perhaps deliberately. In Minnesota right now, state GOP lawmakers are trying to ban the cloning of human embryos, a technology tied to embryonic-stem-cell research. Critics of the legislation say it’s just another instance of the war on science. To prove it, they brought forward a woman, Trisha Knuth, whose little boy, Charlie, has been relieved of a horrific skin disease by a stem-cell transplant.
The only problem with this story is that the therapy that healed Charlie uses adult stem cells, from a donor. Yet when Charlie’s mother testified impassionedly to the Minnesota legislature, you had to search carefully in media reports for the information that her son’s healing actually had no connection with embryonic stem cells.
“That happens all the time!” an exasperated Dr. Theresa Deisher told me. Deisher is the Stanford-trained biotech researcher whose lawsuit last year shut down government funding of ESCR for 17 days. I discovered that the controversial scientist, profiled recently in the journal Nature as the “Sarah Palin of stem cells,” works just up the street from me in Seattle. “People are treated with adult stem cells and they twist the story to promote embryonic stem cells,” she said.

There’s a deliberate deception inherent in these proceedings and a corruption of science which is exposed when realists on both sides come forward, as in this interview out today with bioethicists Arthur Caplan and Robert P. George. As Caplan said,

But the most powerful thing that happened in the stem-cell debates was not arguments by Robby or by me. It was patient advocacy groups speaking up. You come in and say, “I’m in a wheelchair, or my child has diabetes…” Very, very powerful. It’s not religion, but let’s call it a normative stance that is enormously forceful. You must help those in desperate need. That’s how things get settled–not science alone.

As Klinghoffer points out, the simple fact of the matter is that adult stem cells are proven to heal, while embryonic stem cells are not. Too bad the favored narrative bars this knowledge from the discussion.