A Phony 'War on Science'

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a "war on science."

According to Hillary Clinton, the Bush administration has declared "open season on open inquiry." "When I am president," she promises, "scientific integrity will not be the exception; it will be the rule."

The exceptions, in this case, are pretty exceptional: Elias Zerhouni, who has reformed the National Institutes of Health with widely praised efficiency; Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who helped set in motion large-scale AIDS treatment in Africa; Francis Collins of the National Human Genome Research Institute, who led the effort to map the human genome. The "war on science" recently has allowed some extraordinary achievements.

For the most part, these accusations are a political ploy -- actually an attempt to shut down political debate. Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled "anti-science." Any ethical question about the destruction of human embryos to harvest their cells is dismissed as "theological" and thus illegitimate.

Liberal views are "objective" while traditional moral convictions are "biased." Public scrutiny of scientific practices is "politicizing" important decisions.

These arguments are seriously made, but they are not to be taken seriously. Does anyone really believe in a science without moral and legal limits? In harvesting organs from prisoners? In systematically getting rid of the disabled?

This last question, alas, does not answer itself. In America, the lives of about nine of 10 children with Down syndrome are ended before birth. In Europe, about 40 percent of unborn children with major congenital disorders are aborted.

All of which highlights a real conflict, a war within liberalism between the idea of unrestricted science in the cause of health and the principle that all men are created equal -- between humanitarianism and egalitarianism.

In "Science and the Left," his insightful article in the latest issue of the New Atlantis, Yuval Levin argues that a belief in the power of science is central to the development of liberalism -- based on the assertion that objective facts and rational planning can replace tradition and religious authority in the organization of society. Levin summarizes the liberal promise this way: "The past was rooted in error and prejudice while the future would have at its disposal a new oracle of genuine truth."

But the oracle of science is silent on certain essential topics. "Science, simply put," says Levin, "cannot account for human equality, and does not offer reasons to believe we are all equal. Science measures our material and animal qualities, and it finds them to be patently unequal."

Without a firm, morally grounded belief in equality, liberalism has been led down some dark paths. The old, progressive eugenics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries involved widespread sterilization of the mentally disabled as a form of social hygiene. "Drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society," argued Margaret Sanger in 1922, "if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism."

And this "sentimentalism," Levin observes, is actually egalitarianism.

Nazism largely discredited the old eugenics. But a new eugenics -- the eugenics of genetic screening and abortion, the eugenics of genetic selection in the process of in vitro fertilization -- is alive and well. Its advocates contend that the new eugenics is superior because it is voluntary instead of compulsory, and unrelated to race. But Levin responds: "Surely the most essential problem with the eugenics movement was not coercion or collectivism. . . . The deepest and most significant contention of the progressive eugenicists -- the one that made all the others possible -- was that science had shown the principle of human equality to be unfounded, a view that then allowed them to use the authority of science to undermine our egalitarianism and our regard for the weakest members of our society."

The point here is not to catch liberalism in an inconsistency. At its best, the liberal tradition has combined its belief in science with a firm commitment to the equal value of all -- including the disabled and imperfect.

But science can easily become the power of some over the lives of others. And in their talk of a Republican war on science, liberals may be blinding themselves to a very different kind of modern war in which their own ideals are deeply implicated: a war on equality.


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