Friday, February 17, 2006

On Mischaracterizations

Michael Gazzaniga has written extensively on the neurosciences, and for those of us who study philosophy of mind and cognitive science his is a well-known and widely respected voice. That's why his recent OpEd piece in the New York Times comes as something of a disappointment. There he writes that President Bush's statement in the State of the Union address that human cloning is an "egregious abuse" is a "serious mischaracterization". Why is it a mischaracterization? Because
This makes it sound as if the medical community is out there cloning people, which is simply not true. The phrase "in all of its forms" is code, a way of conflating very different things: reproductive cloning and biomedical cloning.
Here are a couple of things to note right off the bat. First, it is something of a stretch to claim that what the president said carries any implicature at all to the effect that he thinks that the medical community is "out there cloning people", or that he wants the rest of us to think that they are. Second, to say that something is a "code" is to impute motive where none can be known. To make such an imputation, however, warrants us in imputing a political motive to Gazzaniga.

What political motive is that? Check it out.
The president's view is consistent with the reductive idea that there is an equivalence between a bunch of molecules in a lab and a beautifully nurtured and loved human who has been shaped by a lifetime of experiences and discovery.
So much for the benighted souls who believe that human life begins at conception, or who think, even more benightedly, that the value of human life begins at conception. And talk about "code": characterizing this view as "reductive" has got to be the most sophistic maneuvre to hit the pages of the New York Times in, well, days. What is reductive is rather the view that "a bunch of molecules" are not equivalent to a "loved human" simply because they do not look very, well, human. In short, for Gazzaniga, biological analysis is a matter of reducing entities to their properties--specifically their material properties.

This will come as no surprise to those who have read his more technical works in the neurosciences, where materialist reduction is the norm and the sort of essentialism that regards human beings as instantiations of a natural kind (in a Thomistic sense) is viewed as a quaint relic of the middle ages (often referred to by materialists, significantly, as the "dark" ages).

Gazzaniga goes on to lament the usual litany of scientific woes that have followed upon this president's "intervention" in the scientific domain. If the good-hearted scientific community could just get about doing its work, free from the malevolent interfering of bone-headed politicians, just imagine the utopian paradise we could be living in. Just in case you might be thinking that the recent news out of Korea ought to keep any sensible person from thinking that the unrestrained work of scientists in the field will always result in good, Gazzaniga has a hilarious spin for that story:
In the scientific community there have obviously been strains. When the sad and pathetic story of the fraud in South Korea came to light, I couldn't help but wonder if the entire process — from the overly ambitious laboratory scientist to the overly eager editors of scientific journals — was compromised by a conscious or unconscious sense that something must keep stem cell research alive in the face of the American administration's unwavering opposition.
There you go: it's never the scientist's fault, for goodness sake, get real America! Stop blaming the victim and go after those right-wing nuts in the White House!

It would be a lot funnier if it hadn't been written with such unintentional irony. True, the guy's a scientist, not a moral philosopher, and there's no reason to suppose that because he's good at the one thing he ought to be good at the other. But he definitely has a case of what I call SAS: Scientific American Syndrome. This is a malady that afflicts scientists and science-writers who think they know more about ethics, morality, and politics than most people precisely because they know (or think they know) a lot about science. Scientific American used to be a very interesting magazine to read for the layman, because it made a lot of recent scientific news accessible to a general public. But for the last 15 years or so they have spilled as much ink pontificating about political issues as they have informing the public about science, and it can get extremely tiresome. Gazzaniga's OpEd piece is just one more episode in the ongoing saga of hubris among working scientists.

Clearly Gazzaniga is entitled to his opinions--we all are, regardless off how poorly thought out they might be--and this is an OpEd piece after all, precisely the forum where one editorializes about one's opinion. And I suppose they simply must put his name at the top of the story--but of course they also put "Michael Gazzaniga, the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth, is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics" at the end of the story, and that can only be read as a credentialing statement. You would never expect to find anything like "Michael Gazzaniga is a househusband living in central New Jersey" at the footer of one of these things, because nobody would care what such a person thought about the president's policy regarding human cloning.

In an ideal world, nobody would care what Michael Gazzaniga thinks about it either.

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