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Science Holds the Key - Or Does It?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
"Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation."  Thus, proclaimed Barack Obama in a radio address this past December.  He drove the point home in his
inaugural speech, declaring, "We will restore science to its rightful place."

But just what does Mr. Obama mean by "rightful place"?  He obviously intended to contrast his approach to science with that of President Bush, but what does this contrast imply?  President Bush believed that scientific inquiry should be circumscribed by ethical constraints.  He, therefore, refused to allow federal funding for stem cell research that would result in the destruction of human embryos.  Bush was dubbed a "neanderthal" by many scientists because he felt that "ethics" should trump "utility."  He was pilloried for his decision and President Obama has been among his critics.

Is ethical restraint of scientific inquiry the problem that Obama seeks to correct?  Should scientific inquiry trump ethics?

Chemistry professor Marc Zimmer, who previously organized protests against President Bush's funding restrictions, is one of many scientists exulting over Mr. Obama's decisions: "It's really early on and what he's done is he's got a superstar team of scientists, and they're real scientists."  Like Professor Zimmer, many in the scientific community seem positively giddy over the election of the new President. 

Chris Mooney of Slate magazine maintains that the real problems facing science are bigger than anything Mr. Bush did in office: "The Bush science controversies were just one manifestation of a deeper and long-standing gulf between the science community and the broader American public, one with roots stretching back to our indigenous tradition of anti-intellectualism... and Yankee distrust of expertise and authority."  The "anti-intellectuals" are (you guessed it) those who don't embrace evolution or the Big Bang theory or the notion that global warming is "real and human-caused."  Mooney maintains that these Americans are suffering from "home-grown anti-science pathologies."  (No doubt he also thinks they brew their own whiskey and marry their cousins.) 

Mooney is right about the "gulf" between the scientific community and the American public, but he misses an important point: many Americans do not trust scientists—left to their own devices—to conduct their research within the bounds of ethical propriety.  History teaches us that science without limits leads to barbarism; hence the phrase, "Mengele Medicine."  Josef Mengele was a Nazi physician who conducted ghoulish "experiments" on prisoners in German concentration camps, including vivisections of infants, castrations of men and boys without anesthesia, and other brutal "procedures" that resulted in horrific suffering for his victims.

Our own U.S. history is fraught with scientific abuses of the weak and vulnerable.  Virginia passed a law in 1924 that required the sterilization of the mentally handicapped, in order to strengthen the nation by removing its weakest members.  Such laws were rooted in a "survival of the fittest" scientific mentality.  Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. affirmed the law, saying, "We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives.  It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices...."

The U.S. Public Health Service still has a black eye from its "Tuskegee experiments" (1932-1972) in which it purported to "treat" 399 black men (mostly illiterate Alabama sharecroppers) for "bad blood" when, in reality, they were studying the effects of syphilis within their cohort and did nothing but let the disease run its devastating course.  Science does not serve mankind well when it is exalted above all else. 

While science has brought mankind countless benefits, it should not be held out as the fount of all knowledge. Yet, it frequently is.  Scientists have been anointed the high priests of our modern era, when, in reality, they are mere mortals: fallible, biased, frequently mistaken, and subject to undue influence.  Unlike the media's portrayal, the scientific community is frequently divided—there is very little "consensus."  And often, the "prevailing view" is later proven wrong. 

Our culture glorifies science today because we love to ask whether we are capable of achieving something.  An equally important question, however, is whether we should pursue that which we are capable of achieving.  Science cannot answer the latter question.  It tells us only what is. It cannot tell us what ought to be. 

Perhaps the undue emphasis on science is a result of the crisis of religion in the West: we've dismissed religion, and now we are left with a void.  We need meaning in order to live our daily lives, and we look to science to fill the void.  But science cannot provide meaning—it answers what, not why.

If we are to avoid the scientific dystopias of the past, we need to ensure that science is hedged in by ethical constraints.  Those constraints will inevitably flow out of our country's moral and religious beliefs.  However "unscientific" those constraints may be, they are necessary to prevent the barbarisms that will inevitably plague science and society in their absence.

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