April 20, 2011 | Posted By John E. Kaplan, PhD

In a discourse between bioethicists Arthur Caplan and Robert P. George, they expound upon the false duality of “normativity” versus “scientism”. This exchange is quoted in Public Discourse under the title “Stem Cells: The Scientists Knew They Were Lying?” by Sherif Girgis, which can be found at this link and further discussed in Bioedge found here.

Wikipedia states “scientism is the idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life.”  The distinct impression one obtains from this discourse is that “scientism”, generally used as a pejorative term, is a widespread belief among scientists. In fact, scientism is a term used primarily by philosophers of science to criticize scientists.

Caplan, a generally liberal bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania, and George, a conservative bioethicist from Princeton University rarely agree. But they seem to find common ground in agreeing that scientists, relying on scientism, are limited in making ethical determinations. They therefore need normativity imposed on them presumably by bioethicists (I admit I draw some of these conclusions which are implied rather than stated explicitly). They single out equally renowned bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, who Caplan identifies as an “an exemplar of scientism”.

Collectively Caplan and George seem to blame scientists as having inappropriately hyped the promise of stem cell research. I recall this political debate and remember it differently. The hyping of stem cell therapy and the expectation of immediate cures was part of political not scientific discourse. It seems to me that the discussion between Caplan and George reflects the belief of many bioethicists that scientists and physicians are limited in their ability to engage in moral decision making and, in the absence of bioethicists, will make improper decisions. I am really not convinced of this as a general principle.

(Disclaimer: I was a scientist before becoming involved in bioethics. I do not believe in scientism and I do believe in normativity. I do not believe that normativity is the sole province of ethicists.)

1 comments | Topics: Philosophy , Stem Cell Research


David Kaplan

David Kaplan wrote on 04/20/11 11:17 AM

Scientists and Philosophers are not mutually exclusive. In fact I would say that all people are both. However, I’m not sure that science or philosophy has anything to do with politics.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.