When I spoke last year on the ethical wrongs of human embryonic stem cell research at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in San Francisco, I observed the hushed tones of reverence with which the name of Professor Hwang was mentioned. The eyes of eager graduate students lit up as they spoke of his work; the Big Fish declaimed with messianic zeal the new pathways that his and related research had opened up. Surely the blind would see and the lame would walk! I never heard any doubts openly expressed about the authenticity of Hwang's work, and even an habitual doubter about the latest Great Discovery such as myself was lulled into dismissing the thought that maybe the results were too good to be true.
Fortunately, as a professional philosopher, I do not have the temptation of billions of dollars of government and private money potentially flowing my way were I only able to save the world. Philosophers tend not to get postage stamps issued in their honor, and there's no Nobel Prize for our line of work. Perhaps that makes it easy for me to step on a high moral horse and condemn the fact that the most august science periodicals in the world, Science and Nature, could have had their peer review and editorial processes held up to ignominy (and not for the first time). Yet as philosophers we are -- at any rate should be -- dedicated solely to the pursuit of truth, and if we can't rely beyond a shadow of doubt on what the scientists are telling us, what hope have we of theorizing about the significance of what they assert?
In her recent op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, Professor Laurie Zoloth, wringing her hands in anguish, appealed to the spirit of Immanuel Kant in her plea for a "truthful narrative" from scientists. Yet she should realize that Kant himself thought we could never know how things really were, and that for humans truth lay, to put it crudely, "in the head." If calling up the ghost of a skeptic (albeit a subtle one) such as Kant -- one of the fathers of that tarnished project called the Enlightenment -- is the best we can hope for, what chance is there that scientists will forget their prizes and the mammoth paychecks dangled in front of their eyes?
It may be inviting poison e-mails to say it, but I venture to suggest that contemporary science is now so corrupted by the lust for loot and glory that nothing less than root-and-branch reform can save it. For a start, although I distance myself wholly from his anti-rationalism and methodological anarchy, I share the late philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend's demand for a separation of science and state, or at the very least a radical curtailment of public financial sponsorship of scientific research. How could the millions thrown at scientists be anything other than a veritable inducement to misconduct? When you combine it with the innumerable honors and awards that await the next would-be secular savior of humanity, one wonders that fraud is not even more common than it appears to be.
This is egregiously so when it comes to medical and other clinical research that has potential direct benefits to life and health. When we look at embryonic stem cell research, however, the matter becomes even more acute. For not only are there the temptations already mentioned, but the research itself is inherently ethically flawed and so invites dissimulation, for instance, in the case of sourcing human eggs -- as we saw at the outset of the Hwang debacle.
It would be an act of utter folly and of contempt for honesty and integrity were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's beloved California Institute for Regenerative Medicine now to go ahead. Were a bishop to be caught doctoring the Gospels, I doubt any scientists would be rushing to approve the Church's latest request for help to build a new cathedral. Why it should be any different for the secular bishops of science is difficult to discern
[IPBiz post 1149]