Comparing Leon Kass and Elizabeth Blackburn

You may recall the uproar not so long ago over Elizabeth Blackburn's removal from the President's Council on Bioethics. She wrote her own account of events - entitled "Reason as Our Guide - which does not paint Leon Kass and the other anti-research conservatives on the Council in a particularly good light.

In any case, this reminder is prompted by an interesting comparison posted to the Extropy Institute chat list by a certain "Avauntguardian":

I was bored at work today so I decided to look up and compare the CVs of Leon Kass and Elizabeth Blackburn to see how much and what they publish. They are available at the following URLs:

The results?

Leon Kass - 8 scientific research publications all before 1970, 88 conservative propaganda, 96 total.

Elizabeth Blackburn - 109 original research publications, 47 scientific reviews, 156 total w/ zero propaganda.

IMHO Leon Kass should stop trying to give people the impression that he is a scientist. The last time he did science was before the first gene was cloned in 1972.

It makes you think, doesn't it? Not that papers and credentials are required in order to express an opinion, but I do think that the weight given to an opinion depends on the experience of the people standing behind it.

Damien Broderick replied to this post, forwarding the comments of a friend:

This is a bit silly, don't you think? Kass claims to be a qualified medical doctor and a bioethicist, mainly the latter. I don't think I've ever seen him hang his hat on any original scientific research that he may have done in his youth. Why would he need to?

Conversely, it looks as if Blackburn has done nothing but substantive science. What publications does she have in fields such as legal policy, philosophy and bioethics, which is what the committee is *doing* after all? As it happens, she may have played a good role on the committee in softening its hard line, but citing her scientific publications is an odd way to support that view.

I may not *like* Kass's bioethical writings (I don't), but this attack on him is really clutching at straws.

To which the rejoinder was:

Yes but what on earth qualifies him to be a "bioethicist"? That he has strong convictions? The impression he tries to give is that he is a "biology insider" who has sufficient knowledge of biology to make informed assessments of the risks of doing certain types of biological research. This image he tries to maintain of higher knowledge gives him a more authoritative air and thus his opinions are to be more valued than that of rank and file of citizenry. Indeed more, apparently, than even practicing biologists.

My point here is that he is not a practicing biologist and he doesn't have the knowledge base to be weighing the risks and benefits of cutting edge biotechnologies. Thus his fears are founded on little more than gut reactions to things he doesn't understand. The gullible masses believe him not because he has some superior moral authority such as the "mandate of heaven" to tell us what is right and what is wrong but because he has an MD/PhD after his name.

Personally, I think that it is more ethical and productive to attack the message rather than the legitimacy of the messenger - and certainly so while Leon Kass and his similarly-minded cohorts on the Bioethics Council continue to spout dangerous nonsense while opposing healthy life extension research.


Why do many science and medicine practicioners, who pride themselves in avoiding bias, indulge in the arrogant error of classifying their thought as truth and the thought of those with whom they disagree as 'propaganda.' These are not the people who will make ethical decisions for me!
David Gillis

Posted by: David Gillis at September 18th, 2004 6:05 PM

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