When citizens engage each other in the public square, we generally begin with the assumption that everyone has the intention of being intellectually honest. We might be duped, misguided, or otherwise just plain wrong, but we take for grated that everyone believes the claims they are making. To engage in a debate without beginning with that presumption is uncivil and uncharitable.
Because that standard exists, it becomes exceedingly frustrating when our interlocutors are lying. Unless we have rock solid proof that they are being dishonest—and can prove they are being intentionally deceiving—calling them out on it can backfire. A prime example is the debate over embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).
Several years ago I worked for a Christian bioethics think tank when ESCR was being hotly debated in the media. Although the ethics of the issue were contested, there was not much disagreement about the basic science involved. Yet some scientists were making claims about ESCR that no one with even the most basic knowledge about the subject could honestly believe were true. But they fooled others into believing them.
For example, the Democratic Party was so convinced that it included in its 2004 platform the claim that, “Stem cell therapy offers hope to more than 100 million Americans who have serious illnesses—from Alzheimer’s to heart disease to juvenile diabetes to Parkinson’s.” Even at the time, researchers knew that ESCR could never cure such diseases as Alzheimer’s, and would likely never be useful for treating juvenile diabetes or Parkinson’s either.
While all Christian bioethicists were quick to point out that these claims were inaccurate, few were willing to say that the scientists were lying. However, Art Caplan—the “dean of liberal bioethics”—has no qualms about calling them out on their dishonesty:
. . .Embryonic stem-cell research was completely overhyped, in terms of its promise. And people knew it at the time. I tried to say so myself at different times myself, even though I support embryonic stem-cell research. But this notion that people would be out of their wheelchairs within a year if we could just get embryonic stem-cell research funded was just ludicrous. Just simply silly.
RG: They knew it at the time?
AC: Yes, those saying it had to know it at the time. The scientists had to have known that. Who has ever delivered a cure in a year from something that’s basically a dish? That’s never happened. Gene therapy was promised as a cure for everything, and it is now starting to cure things, 15 years after the initial gene therapy experiments in dishes were being done. I think embryonic stem-cell research—if it works out, if you can control stem cells derived from embryos, if they don’t revert back… but we don’t know what chemicals to put around them, to get them to become what we want. We don’t know where to put them. But the politics of that issue were abortion politics, meaning that one side had as a principle, “Don’t kill.” The other side had as a principle, “You’ve got to cure.” And that escalated the rhetoric. So I think the science got hyped in response to the politics. Norms drove the debate. Embryonic stem-cell research for me is one of what I might list as 20 scientific frontiers that you might want to pursue. It’s not the frontier, but it’s one of a number of them.
RG: But it sounds to me like a niche.
AC: Oh it’s a niche, absolutely. Bio-banking, synthetic biology, bioagriculture, regenerative medicine at the adult stem cell level… There’s a bunch of areas of science with equal promise—
RG: If scientists knew that what they were doing was hyping it, then—even laying aside the ethical question about the status of human embryos—it seems to be deeply dishonest, clearly wrong.
AC: Here’s an assertion that you hear all the time: “Stem-cell research will help Alzheimer’s.” But stem cell research has no possibility of helping Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a gunk-up-the-brain disease, where every cell is affected. You can’t fix it by any sort of stem cell research. Model it? Maybe. Cure it? Never.