March 12, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Scientific Elitism Trumps Democracy

They don’t want it, but they’re going to get it.  Britons have expressed outrage and anger over genetically-modified foods, such as pesticide-resistant maize, reports Jim Giles in Nature.1  But the government has listened to scientists who have assured government ministers it is safe.  On March 9, they approved commercial planting of GM maize “in the face of widespread public opposition.”  Giles says, “In Britain, opposition to agricultural biotechnology has been early and strident.”
    This decision may set a precedent: “Both supporters and enemies believe this week’s decision will influence debates outside Britain about transgenic crops.”  How did such a decision get past the voters?

The case for the crops was boosted by a scientific review, released last July, which found no reason to rule out carefully managed cultivation of the plants.  The review was discussed at a cabinet meeting last month.  Leaked minutes of the meeting state that ministers acknowledged public opposition, but thought that it “might eventually be worn down by solid , authoritative scientific argument”.

Do the GM crops pose any danger of spreading outside the farm?  “Farmers will also be wary of planting genetically modified varieties before the government has clarified rules governing how they should be kept separate from nearby conventional crops,” the article states.
    Regarding another ethical-political issue – the use of embryonic stem cells – Science editor Donald Kennedy2 announced that South Korea’s recent success in cloning a human embryo makes this a “good time for review” of the ethics of the procedure, which is currently banned from receiving federal funding in the United States and Germany.  Kennedy thinks the global scientific community should be the arbiter of what makes a practice ethical.  He writes,

Plainly, these findings may affect the U.S. ethical debate.  Leon Kass, the chairman of the President’s Council of Bioethics, sees them as a downward step on a slippery moral slope: “tomorrow,” he predicts, “cloned blastocysts for baby-making.”  After the recent purge of two pro-stem cell members, Kass has his commission under control.  But science is, after all, an international activity.  The Korean success reminds us that stem cell research, along with its therapeutic promise, is under way in countries with various cultural and religious traditions.  Our domestic moral terrain is not readily exportable: U.S. politicians can’t make the rules for everyone, and they don’t have a special claim to the ethical high ground.

This seems to mean: others can do it, others are doing it, and who are we (including the voters and democratically-elected representatives) to stand in the way of science?  Kennedy ends by quoting Harvard stem-cell biologist Doug Melton: “Look, life is short.  I don’t want spend the rest of mine reading about exciting advances in my field that can only be achieved in another country.”


1Jim Giles, “Transgenic planting approved despite scepticism of UK public,” Nature 428, 107 (11 March 2004); doi:10.1038/428107a.
2Donald Kennedy, “Stem Cells, Redux,” Science Volume 303, Number 5664, Issue of 12 Mar 2004, p. 1581.

They could do it; should they?  Could is technology; should is ethics.  Not everything possible is advisable.  Scientists are involved in many activities that could have profound societal effects: tampering with supergerms or nanobots that, if released accidentally or by terrorists, might evade all our defenses; producing chimeras, even combining human and non-human characters; toying with human genes in ways that might redefine what it means to be an individual.  To whom are these scientists accountable?  Does wearing a white lab coat mean someone knows the difference between could and should?  Are scientists subject to the rule of law as defined by duly-elected representatives?  Does the international scientific community comprise an elite oligarchy, granted global powers that supersede the rights of voters?  What constitution gave them this authority?
    The American founding fathers made government accountable to the people.  The purpose of government was to protect individual, unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These rights were to be secured through the ballot box and due process of law.  Elected representatives were to be entrusted with decision-making power only with the consent of the governed.  Here, however, we see political and scientific elitists making sweeping, dramatic decisions on risky practices riddled with huge ethical concerns, just because they can, and they think they know what is good for us.
    The point of this commentary is not to debate the specific ethical dilemmas posed by GM crops or therapeutic cloning of embryonic stem cells.  It is not to get embroiled in the emotional arguments about slippery slopes, countered by utopian promises of better health or productivity.  The point is that the decisions on these highly-charged ethical issues are being made by elitists who have utter disdain for the voice of the people.  Giles acknowledged the public outcry but seemed satisfied that if scientists said it’s OK, then it’s OK, even though serious questions remain unanswered about protecting the environment or human health.
    The prior week in both Nature and Science, editorials expressed outrage that the Bush administration had dismissed Elizabeth Blackburn from the President’s Council on Ethics, presumably because she was so outspoken in her opposition to the administration’s position on stem cell research.  The concern seemed to be more about Big Science getting their consensus opinion represented on the council, not whether an elected representative had the right to select his advisors.  And no one was asking the obvious question, what do the voters feel about stem cell research?  How much voice and authority should an unelected council of scientists have to tell the voters the difference between could and should?
    Kennedy’s editorial makes it clear he is much more interested in could than should.  The bulk of his argument rests on pragmatism, if not utter selfishness.  Ethics, shmethics: Melton wants a piece of the action.  The Americans don’t want the Koreans and other pinnacles of ethical civilization to get all the Nobel prizes, whether or not such research leads to designer baby-making down the road.  Voters are idiots.  Scientists know what is good for them.  (Now read the 03/04/2004 headline again.)

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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