How Not to Argue: Ignore Something and Say the Opposite

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On Tuesday several news sources announced a new technique to derive stem cells that seem to be just like embryonic stem cells, except that it can come directly from any adult cell (at least that's how I understand what they've done). If this is all it claims to be, then there does seem to be no need to derive embryonic stem cells from any method that kills an embryo. It's unsurprising that pro-life groups feel vindicated in their claim that we needn't pursue methods that are ethically controversial to get this benefit, and CNN recognizes this in an article yesterday.

What baffles me is that they've sought to present this as if both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate feel vindicated. They even have a quote from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to that effect:

Our top researchers recognize that this new development does not mean that we should discontinue studying embryonic stem cells," he said in a written statement. "Scientists may yet find that embryonic stem cells are more powerful. We need to continue to pursue all alternatives as we search for treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries.

He added that Tuesday's announcement "reiterates the need for federal support for medical research and again points out the president's misplaced priorities in vetoing the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill which included a substantial increase for the National Institutes of Health."

Now if he'd only said the first part, I wouldn't necessarily have any problem. I might disagree with his assumption that human beings at such an early stage have no moral status, but I wouldn't complain about his point. Someone seems to have achieved something that could accomplish what advocates of destroying human organisms for stem cells had wanted to do but without destroying any human organisms. But it's possible that that's not true.

As Russell Korobkin points out, it's still necessary to investigate whether these cells have all the features people want in embryonic stem cells and whether they will have negative features that will prevent their use (e.g. like the cancers in all the embryonic cells, although I have to point out that their presence wouldn't make this any worse than what we've got with embryonic stem cells). It's also still worth thinking through exactly what's going on here to see if it does raise any ethical objections. I certainly haven't done that.

Nevertheless, here is what you cannot rationally do. When someone presents something that at worst does not confirm your position and at best undermines it significantly, you do not present it as vindication of your view. This research may well show that it's completely unnecessary to destroy human embryos for what we might have wanted them for. Senator Harkin has been proposing federal funding to destroy human embryos. If this research is what people are saying it is, then it may well remove any need to do what so many question without sacrificing any consequences. The fact that this may not turn out to be what it's been claimed to be does not vindicate Senator Harkin's position. At best (for him), all it does is not confirm the opposing position that there will be better ways to do what Harkin wants. Not confirming your opponent's position is not vindication of your own position. The non-existence of Santa Claus doesn't confirm his opponents' position on this issue, but it would be crazy to suggest that it confirms support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It's simply irrelevant. Well, so is the failure of a proposed method for producing similar cells. And this isn't the failure of such a method anyway. It's the announcement of what seems like a strong possibility of non-failure in one such method.

So I would encourage the author of the CNN piece and Senator Harkin to pay a little more attention to what counts as vindicating a thesis. The way the piece reads, and the way Harkin's statement comes across, it sounds as if it's ok to ignore a positive movement toward confirming one view as if it also moves positively toward confirming the opposite view. It's fine to say that you don't know if it really does confirm that view, but don't pretend it somehow confirms the opposite view when there's no reason to think it possibly could do so.

7 Comments

Yes, I agree that it is annoying that a person in Sen. Harkin's position would somehow find the major breakthrough vindicating. But (as my high school AP History teacher was fond of saying) since a politician's first priority is to get re-elected, however illogical his statement was, it does portray him as somehow someone who "had known it all along and had fought for the right thing". Political statements are sometimes made with hardly any attention to logic or plain common sense, but they are nevertheless made with a political purpose in mind.

I think he would have been fine if he'd just said that there were several questions still (at least if he was willing to say what those questions were) and that they should still pursue other avenues until they're sure it will work out. Then when it's clear it will, he can say that this seems to remove the need to the research some find problematic but that at the time we needed to do what seemed best before we knew of this. That avoids making his previous statements look stupid without making a statement now that looks stupid.

"A lead author of one of the landmark studies, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, urged that reprogrammed cells not wholly supplant embryonic stem cells in research."

Well, at this early stage in studying these new stem cells, its silly for ANYONE to feel vindicated. It proves nobody right, but that doesn't stop politicians from trying to get traction and momentum out of a null story for their argument:

"This breakthrough provides further evidence that the most promising avenues of stem cell research are also the most ethical," concurred Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma

How so? What they managed was to get a skin cell to behave as a stem cell... They did not announce any experimental results using these cells which made them "the most promising avenue in research". It simply created a potential alternative which may or may not prove promising after many months more research.

Also, this is the first potential alternative to embryonic stem cells I've heard about. Colburn says "furthur evidence" like this is just the cherry on top of a mountain of evidence piling up against the evil immoral scientists.

Now I agree with you on Harkin as far as his second remark being irrelevant, but Colburn's entire statement was misleading in presenting the results of the study

Well, at this early stage in studying these new stem cells, its silly for ANYONE to feel vindicated.

No, it's not. People who have been proposing alternative methods should be very happy that this alternative method seems to offer everything anyone has wanted. It might be worth some caution to avoid overstating what this is, but that's no reason to assume it's not what it seems. It does seem to be what everyone is saying it is, and that's good reason to think it does offer what advocates of embryonic stem cell research have wanted all along, with no ethical difficulties (and I have to say the ethical worries I've heard so far about this research from those who want to be hesistant have sounded extremely silly, relying on ridiculous straw man versions of the pro-life justification for the immorality of destroying human organisms, but again I haven't looked closely at what's going on here).

Also, this is the first potential alternative to embryonic stem cells I've heard about.

Well, I suppose that might be because mainstream media sources aren't reporting about the fact that adult stem cells have been very successful in ways that embryonic stem cells keep failing (and deceptive or uncareful statements by politicians don't help). They can't get embryonic stem cells to take in many cases, and in ones where they have they seem to cause tumors. Adult stem cell methods have been very fruitful. I've seen news stories that have presented the successful adult stem cell research as if it vindicates the claims of those who support embryonic stem cell research, with no mention of the difference or of the fact that pro-lifers have no problem at all with the only kind of stem cell research that has show that kind of good results.

Now it may well be that there hasn't until now been any strong evidence that we can get everything we might have wanted from methods that don't kill embryos. Nevertheless, there has been strong enough evidence that we have good possibilities of doing so without moral objections from those who don't deny moral status to human organisms in the embryonic stage. The difference now is that this method seems to involve cells that are even more like embryonic stem cells than the other methods and even less objectionable morally. That doesn't mean the previous proposals should count for nothing.

I'm really surprised that we haven't heard anything more about AFS cells (amniotic fluid stem cells), since they were portrayed in the media as having the benefits of embryonic and adult stem cells (decreased chance for tumors, pluripotency, etc.) while still able to be retrieved via ethical means (e.g., from umbilical cord blood). It seems like the more that we research alternatives to embryonic stem cells, the more promise there is.

That said, I agree with what you're saying. Those who rail against opponents of ESCR for ethical reasons should not see this as a victory for their battle on that front, although they can certainly see it as a victory in general because it brings hope for further research and spotlights the ongoing work with stem cells, which could even benefit their side in the sense of heightened awareness in the public view.

Nevertheless, there has been strong enough evidence that we have good possibilities of doing so without moral objections from those who don't deny moral status to human organisms in the embryonic stage.

If Sen. Colburn had said it the way you did, it would be fine. You were picking on a Democratic Senator for making a more or less irrelevant statement regarding the study, but you seem fine with the Republican Senator's misleading remarks. Scientists want to do research on embryonic stem cells because the opposite of what Sen Colburn said is true: The most promising avenues for stem cell research have crossed an ethical line with pro-lifers. That is the basic problem. This study may erase the need for scientists to cross that line to conduct the experiments they want to. Some scientists disagree that there is an ethical problem, some DO see an ethical problem with embryonic stem cells, or they simply see the benefit of nullifying the argument by creating viable alternatives which would let them do their work free of political debate (which I think all scientists would like) and with federal funding.

Oh, you mean Coburn. I was wondering who you were referring to in the previous comment. Putting "Senator" in front of the misspelled name clued me in.

The difference is that Senator Harkin said the opposite of what the study might show, and Senator Coburn said something that's probably true given what the study seems to show. I wouldn't call those equivalent.

The most promising avenues for stem cell research have crossed an ethical line with pro-lifers.

But I don't think that's true, and Senator Coburn is simply recognizing the falsity of the claim. The only stem cell research pro-lifers have had a problem with are the embryonic stem cells (and the more careful pro-lifers only have a problem with the ones that involve actually killing embryos in order to do this research as opposed to the ones using embryos that will already be killed). But it's certainly not true that the embryonic stem cells are more promising. What's true is that if you can overcome the main reasons that they're less promising (the fact that they're rejected and the fact that they cause tumors) then they would become more promising. Given those problems, it's the adult stem cells that have shown the most promise. Your complaint against Coburn seems to be that he's challenging the misrepresentations of those who disagree with him on this issue, but the very fact that they're misrepresentations is the point.

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