Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Pinker Stinker And The One Bioethicist That Really Should Get Out of the Way

Back from summer holidays, I was greeted by what has seemingly been the big news in bioethics this and the last month: Steven Pinker's article in the Boston Globe, where he tells the field of bioethics and bioethicists to "get out of the way" and stop debating new technologies, such as the CRISP/Cas9 "genome editing", which I commented on earlier this year – seemingly because Steven Pinker himself has already done all of the bioethics needed doing on this and related subjects (apparently by saying that these technologies will become very good, albeit we don't know much about them yet). That is, he seems at first glance to be performing the very act he urges so strongly against: doing some (rogue elephant) bioethics in this sacred area and, in effect, revealing himself as a ghastly closet bioethicist – who, according to his own logic, should then get out of the way, I presume.

But this is not the end of the folly of Pinker's article, as he seems to be confusing a great number of things, such as bioethics (the academic field where various aspects of bioscience and biotechnology is debated and probed in ethical terms using intellectual tools of moral philosophy and social science), legal and semi-legal regulation of science and technology (adopted by governments, international bodies and professions to control how new ideas and gadgets are introduced and used), and the idea of a temporary moratorium on particular applications of new technologies while exploring them further in more controlled settings (like the  1974 Asilomar consensus on recombinant DNA technology) decided not by bioethicists, but by the concerned scientists themselves – albeit based (one presumes) on views on bioethical issues. Read my distinguished colleagues Richard Ashcroft, Alice Dreger and Julian Savulescu, who I admire for their extreme charity and patience, in turn pointing to several others, to unveil many more subtle incoherent twists apparently resting inside Pinker's stinker, and how these, at the end of the day, leaves him even worse off in terms of  consistency than what the initial impression holds out.

On my own part, I can't free myself from the reflection that if there is one bioethicist who really should get out of the way, it is the one who thinks that the fact the he/she has formed an (no matter how badly argued) opinion on something is a reason for others not to voice and argue their own.

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