Disturbingly, a totally irrational and dangerous proposition seems to be on the point of being quietly accepted as a truism, after unchallenged repetition. The idea is that scientific activity should be judged solely on a scientific basis, free of political considerations.
Prominently, President Obama (in authorizing use of embryos in stem cell research) and a federal judge (in vacating FDA restrictions on birth control for minors) have used this line. Superficially, it may sound not only correct but self-evident, but actually, the notion is dead wrong and very dangerous.
The problem is that, as scientists have said for years, science does not make normative ethical judgments about what should or shouldn't be done; it only provides descriptive information about what is done and what can be done. Normative judgments, hopefully resting on an ethical basis, have to be made by others. In a democracy, those "others" make the judgments through politics. The only alternative to allowing political considerations to govern scientific research is for society to surrender control over the morally correct use of science.
The two issues in which this line has been trumpeted are good illustrations of why science cannot answer the question of what should be done. As far as stem cell research goes, science supplies the information that research can be done that may lead to the cure of some diseases if cells are taken from living embryos, and that this can only be done if the embryos are killed. This begs the question of whether it is right or wrong to kill the embryos (which, science also tells us, will not live to be born in any event) in order to find cures for diseases. People can and do argue both sides of this question as a moral matter. Science cannot answer the moral question of who is right. If we think that morality matters, society has to answer the question of what is right and what is wrong here, and to say that it is wrong for this to be done through the political process seems to be saying that it is wrong to have a democracy as opposed to an enlightened despotism.
Similarly, one can argue both sides of the question of whether a teenage girl and her doctors should be able to decide, without involvement of the girl's parents, whether she should take a "morning after" pill after she has had sexual intercourse without using birth control. Again, there are moral questions involved. Should minor children make important life decisions on their own, or should their parents, until children reach adulthood, have a voice in these decisions? Is it right to destroy a fertilized egg, which some people regard as a live human being, in order to avoid going to term with pregnancy? These questions can be argued, but they can't be brushed aside, and science can't tell us what the rights answers are. So for a judge to say that the FDA should not have considered the questions from a "political" point of view - i.e., what society, expressing its view through its elected officials, thinks is the right answer to these questions - but only from a purely "scientific" one - is to say that moral judgments should be vacated, and that simply because something can be done, it is all right to do it.
The same reasoning could be applied to any number of political issues which have a scientific context - or scientific issues with political repercussions. At the risk of offending some who would debate the scientific issue of global warming, I will submit for the sake of argument that science supports the idea that the planet is getting warmer, that human burning of fossil fuels is contributing to rising temperatures, and that if temperatures continue to rise, there will be consequences, including extinction of some species, greater agricultural productivity in northern latitudes, and a more comfortable climate in some places and a less comfortable one in others. But science cannot tell us what the right or wrong thing to do about climate change is. If global warming is taking place, is it right to allow extinction of tropical rain forest species in order to increase farm production in Canada and Russia? Or does saving these species from extinction justify preventing people in Maine from enjoying a Florida-like climate without having to move from their homes? These are ethical value questions, not questions of scientific knowledge, and in our society, the answers are political.
If one were to take the issue to its logical extreme, there are many other moral questions that involve scientific issues but can be answered only by moral and political judgments. Some of these questions may concern people untroubled by the questions raised above.
For example, should we clone human beings? All science can tell us is, we can. Whether we should, is a moral and a political question. If scientific questions should be decided purely on the basis of science and not politics or moral opinions, as some argue, I guess that means we can't restrict cloning, but I doubt many people would be willing to forego political restraint in this area. How about euthanasia? All science can tell us is that it can be done, not whether it should. Is there no place in poltical discussion for debate on this issue? How about involuntary euthanasia for the incurably ill? At this point, in all 50 states of the United States, this is punishable as murder, and an overwhelming majority of citizens would probably say, rightly so. Should this "political" judgment be surrendered, too, and hospitals be allowed to kill patients instead of cure them in the interest of unrestricted science?
Some interplay between science and politics is inevitable. Science can tell us only what we can do, not what we should do. What we should do is a political judgment. Some of the current critics of the politicization of science may really mean that they dislike the political judgments the Bush Administration made on scientific issues. One can certainly engage in political debate about whether those judgments were right or wrong. But to say that the Bush Administration was wrong to decide what scientific courses of action were appropriate on the basis of political judgments, period, is tantamount to saying that society has to surrender control of the ethical governance given to scientific experimentation.
It has not been too many decades since scientists, not only in Nazi Germany but even in some American states, engaged in conscious "eugenic" experimentation that people today universally condemn as wrong. One is not an intolerant bigot to believe that those societies were wrong not to impose proper ethical restraints on what could be done in the name of science, or to think that society today should not surrender ethical and political control of what is allowed to be done in the name of science.