Why did the designers of the lovely new IDS building in Southampton choose to incorporate security pod entrance doors, which keep breaking down, cocooning staff like a member of Spinal Tap? Why do taxi drivers, possessors of ‘the knowledge’, apparently retain scant familiarity with the highway code? Why did the security staff at Prince’s O2 arena concerts behave like uniformed authoritarians of some totalitarian police state? Why, as a committed advocate of free speech, do I wish Josephine Quintavalle would shut up?
Quintavalle’s mouthpiece, the ‘public interest’ (?) group, Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), argues that ‘the issues involved with hybrid embryos are ones that must be discussed by the whole country rather than just scientists’. Fair enough; in fact, that would be great, and is an attitude held by many scientists. Robert Winston, on his own website: “Scientists must listen to public fears, and respond to the concerns of ordinary people. We must behave responsibly, ensuring our work has the highest ethical standards.” So we’re all in agreement? Brilliant! Who’s for a drink then? Just one problem here: if we’re going to involve everybody in public discussion on controversial scientific matters, we have to ensure they are equipped with the knowledge base to be able to take part in the debate (if they so wish). At the risk of resorting to maxims, this requires education and for more scientists to communicate better with the public. In the meantime, while we continue (as we should) to further the public understanding of science, then we have to rely on the experts – that is what they are there for. This does not mean that we ignore ‘ordinary people’. (Laypersons is a better term, I think; ‘ordinary’ suggests the experts are extraordinary, implying non-experts are somehow of an intellectual sub-class; we’re all laypersons outside of our own profession). On the contrary; and neither should we assume that increased public awareness automatically correlates with increased acceptance and reduced controversy. However, we ought to guard against allowing representatives of minority opinion undue weight and the opportunity to provoke religious knee-jerking.
Interestingly, I’ve read that, due to public outcry, Winston has decided to ship his xenotransplantation research program to the States. If so, what does such action say about his attitude to public opinion? He is obviously satisfied of the ethicality of such work, because he intends to continue with it. So he is, presumably, dissatisfied by the UK public’s dissent, which he therefore considers mistaken, otherwise he wouldn’t move it to Missouri, perceiving UK naysaying as merely NIMBYism, and not outright condemnation. It has happened in the opposite direction, with American embryonic stem cell researchers leaving the States to ply their trade in the more permissive environment of the UK. Is to b!!!!r off and do it elsewhere regardless a true response to public concerns? No. However, these are not the concerns of the majority of the public. They are the rhythms of drum-beating minority interest groups who make religious objections in the public domain, giving us the false impression that most of us object – or should object – to the science in question, and presenting the image of a balanced debate, acquiring the clout to exert undue influence on our democratically-elected government and its regulatory bodies.
Winston’s response shows that what is considered ethical or unethical differs between cultures, places and times. Religion would have it that these things are constant… and religion has a headstart here, having been around for millennia longer than science, and, as such, has burrowed itself far deeper into our psyche. Quintavalle and her ilk know this full well when appealing to this ‘pre-knowledge’ in order to mobilise the public against what they consider ‘taboo’.
Didn’t mean the bit about her shutting up though. Don’t want to be like one of those O2 security staff, do I?
One problem is what’s the least needed for the public to trust their scientists? Obviously they don’t need the same knowledge base as the scientists have to trust them, in contrast, they need very little to trust someone. Scientists, however, are not as good at that little as some bias producers like Quintavalle.