[Paleopsych] TCS: Bioethics Panel Illustrates Scientific Ethics' Complexity

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Bioethics Panel Illustrates Scientific Ethics' Complexity
    Iain Murray
    Senior Fellow, CEI
    [3]Email Author

    Recently, I wrote a [26]column here calling on Dr. Rajendra Pachauri
    to resign as Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
    because he was using his position to push a political agenda. Sadly, I
    now must bring the same argument against a scientist I otherwise very
    much admire, [27]Dr. Leon Kass, Chairman of The President's Council on
    Bioethics. His recent decision to draft a political strategy aimed at
    achieving certain policy goals renders his position as an honest
    broker on the issue untenable. Yet there is a lesson to be learned
    from these unfortunate incidents: Science and politics cannot be
    separated as neatly as scientists and policy makers think.

    According to The [28]Washington Post, Dr. Kass has teamed up with Eric
    Cohen, editor of the excellent journal of science, politics and
    philosophy [29]The New Atlantis, to devise "a bold and plausible
    'offensive' bioethics agenda[aimed at] tak[ing] advantage of this rare
    opportunity to enact significant bans on some of the most egregious
    biotechnological practices."

    The merits of Dr. Kass's preferred policies are irrelevant here. The
    problem is that by hitching his star to a particular set of policies
    he has breached the trust set in him by the President, whose executive
    order creating the council asked it to "explore specific ethical and
    policy questions related to these developments; [and] to provide a
    forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues." At the very
    least, by sheer virtue of his position, his favored policies are more
    likely to get a hearing than those of other well-qualified
    bioethicists who do not have the authority of such an office (a point
    well made by Roger Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado [30]here).
    Such a prospect would seriously undermine in the principle of
    "procedural justice" -- the right of all sides of a political argument
    to be heard without fear or favor

    Yet perhaps we can learn from incidents like this. Rep. Henry Waxman
    (D.-CA) certainly thinks so. He has proposed a new Bill, [31]HR 839,
    aimed at "ensuring independent advice and expertise" on federal
    scientific advisory panels, to wit:

    "Each agency shall make its best efforts to ensure that --

    (A) no individual appointed to serve on a Federal scientific advisory
    committee has a conflict of interest that is relevant to the functions
    to be performed, unless such conflict is promptly and publicly
    disclosed and the agency determines that the conflict is unavoidable;"

    Rep. Waxman's Bill is fundamentally flawed, because it assumes
    "objectivity" as a necessary scientific value. As Karl Popper, the
    great philosopher of science, said, "My guess is that should
    individual scientists ever become 'objective and rational' in the
    sense of 'impartial and detached,' then we should indeed find the
    revolutionary progress of science barred by an impenetrable obstacle"
    (The Rationality of Scientific Revolutions.)

    This is why the concept of procedural justice is crucial.

    "Procedural justice" is the formulation of eminent British philosopher
    Sir Stuart Hampshire, whose later work centered on the idea that
    conflict over ideas is an inevitable part of human life, but that
    reasoned debate is always possible. Successful resolution of these
    conflicts depends on "the overriding necessity that each side in the
    conflict should be heard putting its case ('audi alteram partem')"
    (Justice Is Conflict). If Hampshire is correct, then supposed
    conflicts of interest are not anathema to the policy-making process,
    but a vital part of it. For a scientific advisory panel to produce
    useful advice, it must include representatives of all sides in the
    policy debate, whether they have "conflicts of interest" or not. The
    only requirement should be that those conflicts are transparent.

    On the other hand, the chairman of any advisory panel should be
    scrupulously neutral, otherwise the policy conflict will not be
    resolved to all parties' satisfaction. As Hampshire says, "The
    skillful management of conflicts [is] among the highest of human
    skills." Again, procedural justice demands that once chairmen like
    Pachauri or Kass identify too closely with a particular side in the
    conflict, they must relinquish that role to somebody better skilled at
    the management task.

    If society is to derive any benefit from scientific advisory panels,
    lawmakers must recognize that full and frank debate of the views of
    all sides is necessary, that complete impartiality on the part of
    participants is neither necessary nor desirable, but also that those
    charged with resolving the conflict -- chairmen or working group
    leaders -- must act within strict parameters of neutrality. Neither
    the actions of Dr. Kass nor the Bill sponsored by Rep. Waxman are
    doing anything to improve the quality of scientific advice.


   26. http://www.techcentralstation.com/013105E.html
   27. http://www.bioethics.gov/about/kass.html
   28. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A15569-2005Mar7?language=printer
   29. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/
   30. http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/biotechnology/000373politics_and_bioethi.html
   31. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c109:H.R.839:

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