Political and scientific values in health care debates

As medical science advances, more and more of our choices become political and, ultimately, moral. Moral systems differ in their views on stem cells. A morality which rejects stem cell research doesn't halt science, however.

CT image from NIHMany of our health policy choices come down to a conflict between scientific and political values.

Science doesn't work through majorities. Even a consensus view can be readily overthrown, as we see today with CAT scans.

Science also can lack simple, black-and-white answers. Take the CAT scan question. Risk must be balanced against need. Older machines pose greater risks than newer ones. What is a patient to do? What a scientist does, ask questions.

Political questions are different. You don't have to fool all the people all the time. Fool half the people once in a while and that may be enough. Truth is fungible in politics. Choices must be black-white so they can be understood.

When scientists give political answers they get into trouble, as James Watson learned recently. The DNA discoverer's scientific legacy has been tainted by some stupid political remarks. There is no political consensus among scientists.

Or take the question of stem cell research, where some political comments were offered. I responded in a political way.

This surprised some people, who seemed to think you can't do journalism, or science, and have political opinions. It caused some to suggest I not be allowed to cover science, or that ZDNet stop covering this beat.

But that's politics. Someone more adept at political argument may have offered better replies, as Michael Kinsley did this week in Time, noting that embryos are routinely destroyed in fertility clinics without political controversy.

As medical science advances, more and more of our choices become political and, ultimately, moral. Moral systems differ in their views on stem cells. A morality which rejects stem cell research doesn't halt science, however.

Science goes on. The difference between science and politics is clear. Science is about asking questions. Politics is about answering them. And they proceed in completely different ways.

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