August 19, 2008

Critical Thinking about the Role Science is Playing in American Politics and Culture

By Father Thomas Berg *

An Interview with Yuval Levin 


Yuval Levin is a fellow at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of the journal The New Atlantis. He also served as Associate Director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, and prior to that, as Executive Director of the President's Council on Bioethics. I last wrote about Yuval's work in June ("What Americans Think About Embryo Research"). He has now written a new book which I can't wait to get my hands on. It's entitled Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy. In it, Yuval takes on a complex set of issues which revolve around a central theme: how our American experiment in ordered liberty should respond to that great, growing and ever more culturally invasive enterprise we call science. 


 Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of briefly interviewing Yuval about the book, and his thoughts on that complex juncture of scientific research, culture and politics. Here's what Yuval had to say.


Berg: A promotional ad for your new book says you contend that "the science debates have a lot to teach us about our political life." Can you expound? In a nutshell, what do we have to learn from the debates?


Levin: The debates we have had about science-related issues in recent years have shown us some important problems with our political culture. We have seen, for example, that we have enormous trouble in our politics making a case for valuing anything - even human equality and dignity - more highly than the pursuit of health and the relief of pain. This is understandable. We are always deeply moved by the sight of sickness or pain, especially when someone we love is suffering. But if we as a society are to pursue medical progress in an ethical way, without violating the essential moral principles that hold our society together, we have to be able on occasion to say that these moral principles must matter more than even the potential for cures. That's extremely difficult, and one of the arguments I make in the book is that the difficulty has a lot to do with the origins and the nature of our political system.


I look also at some of what we can learn about the right and the left in the science debates. We learn that the left deeply identifies itself with science, but that in fact its views are sometimes in serious tension with the scientific worldview (on the question of equality, for instance, and even in some of the environmental debates). We learn that the right, in an effort to defend some deeply held ideals, faces the very difficult task of distinguishing genuine dangers from costs that are worth paying for scientific and medical advances, and so often runs the risk of overreacting.


I think in general that the science debates offer us a great window on American political life, and one of the things the book tries to do is get beyond the divisive fights of the moment and ask what might we learn about ourselves from these arguments and what should we do to improve our ability to govern ourselves responsibly in the age of biotechnology?


Berg: The stem cell debate has become something of a paradigmatic politicization of science - this is the common perception. There was hype on both sides of the embryonic stem cell debates. Many pro-lifers were admittedly drawn into the same game of over-hyping adult stem cell research. In hindsight, what could the pro-life community have done to be more effective?


Levin: It's true, the stem cell debate has been overrun with hype. The hype of embryo research advocates has been, I think, far more extensive and disingenuous, but pro-lifers were by no means immune to the tendency to overstate. I argue that part of the reason for this was a (generally healthy) tendency on our part to want to show that the debate was not necessary: that science and ethics were not necessarily at odds, and that we all shared the same ends - the pursuit of medicine - but that some means were just out of bounds. On a few occasions, perhaps the desire to show that got ahead of people's actual evidence. Fortunately for us, it seems that in the case of the stem cell debate, it is turning out to be true that non-controversial means to the same ends may be available, as we're seeing with the new reprogramming techniques. But even if that were not the case, we would still need to have the courage of our convictions and say that the destruction of nascent life for research is unacceptable. That's very difficult, and that difficulty had something to do with the tendency to make the most of every shred of evidence that alternatives might be available. That tendency does sometimes lead to hype unfortunately. We could have done a better job at arguing the ethical case on its own terms: say that the destruction of embryos is not acceptable even if there is no scientific alternative. And only then pursue alternatives. Our case is first and foremost a moral case, but of course that's not always the easiest political argument to make. 


Berg: There is a common notion that a person can have a "purely scientific" point of view, a value-less point of view with regard, say, to the social implications of biotechnology. (Similarly, there's the notion that science is morally "neutral" and "above politics"). I think many in the scientific community are blind to the value-judgments they import into their beliefs about how science affects the rest of us. Would you agree?


Levin: I do agree, and this is a subject I take up at the beginning of the book. The idea that science is morally neutral - that it simply provides us with tools without directing our use of them - is very common and I think very misguided. The fact is, the scientific enterprise is constructed on a moral foundation: on a desire to empower human beings and improve human life. To say it's morally neutral is actually to sell it short. But at the same time, it also imports a great many other moral assumptions - a certain materialism, mechanism, utilitarianism, and the like - that if they go unnoticed and unbalanced can lead to some serious problems. Science has to be understood as a human endeavor with discernible ethical purposes, and so as bearing great promise and potential, but also requiring some input and oversight from the larger democratic society.


Berg: Are the scientists the "new high priests" of a "post-Judeo-Christian culture" as popular expression has it?


Levin: Well, fortunately we are not actually living in a post-Judeo-Christian society, and so I don't think scientists have truly taken over the role of spiritual leaders, nor do I think it's a role they want. But what they have done is taken on the role of experts, and in our society expertise is valued as highly (and at times surely more so) as spiritual insight. To say that something is scientific is to say it's verified, to say, in effect, that it's true. And there's no question that we look to science for guidance in areas of life well beyond those where scientists are actually qualified to offer expertise. One of the things the book tries to do is lay out, historically and philosophically, how that might have happened.


Berg: If push comes to shove, most people would agree that there should be at least some ethical limits to certain brands of scientific endeavor and research. How are we as a culture to deal with a scientific establishment that vehemently resists such a notion? Should there be political remedies? Federal regulation? Do we need to battle to change the scientific mindset? All of the above?


Levin: You're right. The idea that there should be some limits on scientific research is not in itself a controversial idea. We see that with the near-universal acceptance of human research subject protections, for instance, and a lot of our debates are about who counts as a human subject for the purpose of such protections. But there is no question, too, that the scientific community resists any attempt to constrain its freedom of action. And as I try to show in the book, that has been the case from the very beginning. The modern age has seen a struggle for authority between science and democracy. By better understanding modern science, I think we can come to see that it is appropriately subject to the authority of our democratic institutions, even when the people in charge of those institutions are not themselves experts in the scientific fields being regulated. It's crucial to see that "science policy" is more about policy than it is about science - it is about the kinds of limits and the kinds of incentives we as a society want to establish.


Berg: Your book, I suspect, is tying together a number of strands of thought and reflection. If so, what are those principal themes and in a nutshell, what do you want to tell readers?


Levin: The essential argument of the book is that we have - in our moral and political traditions - the tools we need to govern science responsibly: in a way that advances human knowledge and power but also respects human equality and dignity. What we sometimes lack is confidence in our traditions and our institutions. Science can cause us to lose confidence in those institutions, to think that the world is changing so much that our old ideas just don't matter anymore. I argue for greater confidence in those traditions: in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, and in the American political tradition. By properly understanding the relation of science and politics, we see that we need those traditions now more than ever.



Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, published by Encounter Books, will be in stores in late September. But you can pre-order it at Amazon - I know I'm going to. And I thank my friend Yuval for making yet another substantive and constructive contribution toward sustaining an authentically human culture.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


Follow us:

Check out Catholic News Agency Polls on LockerDome on LockerDome