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Policy Immitates Star Trek

I had this cunning plan to wait until tomorrow link to the Gary Farber fundraising drive on the theory that a link would do more good with a little bit of delay between when I offered it and when John Holbo offered up a link on Crooked Timber. But Gary's gone and emailed in to say he likes old-fashioned blog-links, too, highlighting in particular this post which reveals (really) that at least one member of the President's Bioethics Council (really) came to the view that "that cloning and embryonic stem cell research are evil . . . in part, by watching Star Trek." Really. Personally, I'm more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, but I'd really prefer not to launch a dispute on the topic. My hope would be that we can all agree this is perhaps not the soundest method of formulating bioethics policy. Although, considering the low knowledge level of the White House's in-house Social Security expert I suppose we'll take what we can get. Ironically, while the Trekkie bioethicist is not a scientist, the Social Security expert is not an economist but . . . a chemist. I suppose it's very pointy-headed elite of me to think that people should be basing their views on actual knowledge, but that's just what you get.

But donate, you know. And I join Gary in wondering why nobody will tell us what the damn recipe for Madam Mao's Chicken is.

March 28, 2005 | Permalink


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» William Shatner inspired Bio-ethics from bennellibrothers.com
Is anyone really surprised about this? I mean Star Trek is a great show (and who doesnt like the James T. Kirk 2-hand clasped back breaker) and, I might add, it is one of Razor's favorite shows (along with Dallas)... but to get an advisor to Bushy men... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 29, 2005 8:54:22 AM


"I had this cunning plan to wait until tomorrow link to the Gary Farber fundraising drive...."

Just don't think this lets you off the hook for on the typos front!


If it's any help, while I'd have to be a mindreader to be sure, I'd contextually think it's a pretty sure bet that she was referring to the 24th Century era of Star Trek, not the original; there are a reasonable number of eps from TNG, DS9, Voyager and the 22nd Century Enterprise, but not really any TOS episodes, that touch on bio-ethic-type questions. Which doesn't mean I think it's any sounder a source for a Presidential advisor, mind.

But on the important question, DS9 had far and away the most depth and character development, and Enterprise in this last season only, has had the most rich crunchy Trekkiness. Voyager lags behind all the rest. Next: Macs vs. PCs, followed by whether Linux wins or not.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Mar 28, 2005 10:14:29 PM

Also: "Immitates"

You're welcome!

Posted by: Gary Farber | Mar 28, 2005 10:15:03 PM

Ah. The episode with the Irish farmer-colonists and the cloning technocrats. As I recall, Ryker and Troi were cloned without their permission. Ryker, in a fine display of primitive savagery, vaporizes his still-growing clone in its fancy petri dish.

I actually disagree with Ryker, and think that he displayed an uncharacteristically primitive ethos. You are your genes? That doesn't sound like a modern understanding of identity, that interplay between environment and genetics. After all, when Ryker's transporter image remained stranded on a desserted planet for 10 years, it got downright EVIL -- to the point of wearing a goatee in a Deep Space Nine episode.

Ok. I'll go back to my holosuite now.

Linux wins.

Posted by: al-Isqut | Mar 28, 2005 10:30:16 PM

A classic episode. Ryker is the man.

Sadly, I like the new Battlestar Gallactica better than the soon to depart Enterprise. It's as good as Deadwood, IMHO.

BTW Matthew, you are back to being the #2 Yglesias on Google...

Posted by: monkyboy | Mar 28, 2005 10:53:44 PM

I'm a DS9 type myself. The Neocon ideology seems to be fairly similar to the Dominion's, to me, at least: maintain permenant hegemony. Substitute "Iraq" for "Cardassia" and "God" for "The Founders" and George W. Bush would have made a fine Vorta.

The question is, why aren't the Bushies interested in creating a cloned Jem'Hadar army? You can't be a paranoid empire without the cloned army, dammit.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Mar 28, 2005 11:05:38 PM

NASA researchers producing software to render 3d projections of the surface of Mars as produced by Mars rovers used black and white checkerboard to mark unmapped territory.

Users complained that they didn't like the black and white checkerboard, and instead asked for the Next Generation style of the Holodeck. They changed the software.

I swear I am not making this up.

But google is no help because there are lots of questions about what it would take for NASA to do research on building a holodeck or a simulator like it.

Posted by: niq | Mar 28, 2005 11:15:09 PM

I'm open to the idea that a good argument could be suggested to someone from any piece of literature or dramatic art, whether it is The Tempest, Star Trek, or Archie and Jughead. But what is more important here is that the argument is hideously bad.

Professor Schaub's argument seems to proceed in two steps. Her initial premise, suggested by the lessons of the Star Trek episode is:

1. Mortality is a necessary foundation of some good things.

From this Trektarian premise, she appears to derive the intermediate conclusion:

2. It is a mistake to attempt to overcome mortality.

I have no problem with the premise. There is a very good article by Bernard Williams entitled “The Makropoulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” which sets out a strong case for this claim. But 2 does not follow from 1. That Schaub should think so is especially puzzling given that she herself allows the possibility that mortality "is not precisely a good thing". The fact that some bad (or non-good) thing is a foundation of some good things is not sufficient to show that it is a mistake to try to eliminate the bad thing. Polio (a bad thing) is a foundation for the existence of both cures for polio and compassionate expressions of pity over cases of polio (both good things), but surely that doesn't mean it was a mistake to eliminate polio. If the negative value of the bad things that depend on some thing x is greater than the positive value of the good things for which x is a foundation, then we still have reason to eliminate x, even though in doing so, we will eliminate some good things.

But the worst part of the argument is the leap from the intermediate conclusion 2 to the ultimate conclusion:

3. Cloning and embryonic stem cell research are evil.

It is hard to see the connection here. Perhaps Schaub is thinking of the figurative, but literally false, sense in which a person may seek to clone himself in order to "achieve immortality". I trust that only the most silly and uninformed among us continue to think that cloning oneself is some sort of technological extention of one's own life. If I clone myself, even by somehow making an adult clone, and then die while my clone survives, I have not extended my life one jot. I am dead. And of course, nobody is really talking about cloning technologies that produce fully-formed adult copies of the original person.

But perhaps when Professor Schaub talks about "eliminating mortality" via cloning and stem cell research, she merely has in mind the sense in which medical research of all kinds has the benefit of extending our mortal lives, and thus eliminating some fragment of our mortality. But surely Schaub doesn't mean to suggest that medical research of all kinds is bad for this reason.

Such a bad argument! It would be a howler even for a typical college freshman in an Ethics class. How much more embarrassing for a member of a select Presidential Commission on Bioethics.

I note, without further comment, that Professor Schaub is a professor of Political Science, not Philosophy.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Mar 28, 2005 11:15:41 PM

I don't see a problem with having non-scientists on the bioethics advisory board, if they specialize in ethics instead of biology. It seems to me that philosophers, especially those who focus on bioethics, ought to be well-represented. Peter Singer has an argument that could be easily adapted to this.

Now, theologians ought not to be members, but if you don't already believe that I don't think anything could convince you of it.

Posted by: Philip Brooks | Mar 28, 2005 11:30:24 PM

I, too, believe The Next Generation was superior to all other forms of Star Trek.

Posted by: Erik K. | Mar 28, 2005 11:33:12 PM

And while we are at it, Richard Clarke talks about how one of the reasons Clinton took large scale terrorism seriously was because he read Tom Clancy novels, which are no more Reality-Based than Star Trek.

Posted by: niq | Mar 29, 2005 12:01:45 AM

It seems like scientists would be the very people you wouldn't want on a bioethics commission. Wouldn't that be like forming a commission to develop police practices, and then appointing a bunch of retired patrol officers? Or forming a commission on just-war theory, and stocking it with Marines?

Sure, you'd want a few, mainly to provide information about techniques, processes, and the state of the art of the biosciences. But on a bioethics commission in a democracy it seems like you mainly want representatives of the major streams of ethical thought around at the moment.

Posted by: Christopher M | Mar 29, 2005 12:20:31 AM

"Tom Clancy novels, which are no more Reality-Based than Star Trek."

Y'know, I wouldn't recommend Clancy for his literary style, but absent his politics, his novels (those he actually wrote himself, that is) actually are very much more reality-based than any version of Star Trek. Really. No transporters or warp drive or time travel or aliens at all. Pinky swear.

I'm faintly tempted to start making a list of other Trek episodes that might be relevant, but only faintly. There are significant limits to my Inner Trekkie. But there really are several others; most recently, the Enterprise episode "Sim," not to mention the last movie, Nemesis (for all twelve of you that saw it). (And I sure wouldn't draw any lessons about stem cells or cloning from either.)

Posted by: Gary Farber | Mar 29, 2005 12:26:24 AM

Following up on the above:

One of the main reasons why you'd want a bioethics commission in the first place (if you would) is because the nature of modern bioscience research is such that it's easy to do the research without really having to confront the moral questions that the research raises. The incentives in a research community are all about pushing the boundaries, so if you're wondering whether there are some boundaries we shouldn't push, then I don't know why you'd want a bunch of researchers to be the ones thinking about that question.

I also get the feeling -- though I don't have enough experience to really say -- that graduate programs in the sciences don't involve a lot of necessary thinking about ethical questions, either in the curriculum or in the general culture. Contrast that with, say, law schools, where the morality of lawyering and law-making is front and center. (At least it is at the elite schools.) If that's true, it's a plausible basis for the belief that we need bioethics commissions precisely to give non-scientists a role in deciding what goes on in laboratories.

Posted by: Christopher M | Mar 29, 2005 12:32:45 AM

I guess I don't have much trouble with what Matt reports that Gary Farber reports that Diana Schaub had to say. Note that she did not claim to have reached scientific conclusions based on Star Trek, but rather ethical/moral conclusions. After all, we all use a fairly wide range of information and insights when we develop our ethical systems, some of it better, some of it worse.

And one thing I think is clear is that the creators of all of the Star Trek series wanted us to do was to think about ethical/moral issies. So, in that sense, when Schaub used what she saw on Star Trek as an impetus for thinking abour ethical.moral issues, she reacted as the creative folks would have wanted.

What she did, as Dan Kervick notes, was reach what can arguably be described as inappropriate conclusions.

Posted by: Donald A. Coffin | Mar 29, 2005 12:50:12 AM

Funny thing about Tom Clancy is that he was one of the first commentators to be summoned to pontificate on CNN on 9/11.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 29, 2005 1:01:58 AM

When Clancy was touring with Tommy Franks to promote their book, he was asked about Wolfowitz. To which he replied:

Oh, is he on our side?

Posted by: Armsagettin' | Mar 29, 2005 1:19:02 AM

I've updated my post on Diana Schaub with a link and quotes to a substantive new article in which she goes on at greater length and detail about how Trek influences her thinking. And I was wrong: she's very much relying on original Kirk/Spock Trek: "the original series of course, not any of the second-rate sequels."

So if you care, go look at my post again for the new info.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Mar 29, 2005 1:35:16 AM

Christopher M:

From where I sit, I'd say an even split of ethicists to scientists would probably be good. Mainly because, in my experience in the sciences, non-scientists tend to have a really poor grasp of what the actual implications of a scientific breakthrough are. As in, most people jump right to Star Trek scenarios, when the reality is rather different.

(Case in point: recent paper out of the RHIC mentioned the possibility that some of the collisions were producing mini black holes. The popular response was almost immediately one of fear, when in reality such fears were wholly unfounded. But, to an ethicist with no training in advanced physics, they might seem like reasonable ethical questions.)

So I think a healthy number of scientists in the field would be needed to keep that tendency in check.

Posted by: tango | Mar 29, 2005 1:42:38 AM

A lot of people thought of Clancy immediately on 9/11, because one of his recent books featured as the major event terrorists diving a major passenger airliner into the Capitol (during the State of the Union, or somesuch event). People in NYC had the thought, and so did people elsewhere. It's not a surprise. It was one of the closest analogues in pop culture to what happened (and less implausibly than, say, Independence Day, or Godzilla. It's no surprise he'd be interviewed in the aftermath.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Mar 29, 2005 1:45:26 AM

Interestingly Schaub's views on the flood are 180°'s away from Kass's. She says: "We are told in Genesis that the earliest generations of men, through Noah, had lifespans closer to a millenium than a century. We also know that things ended rather badly for them."

But in Kass' book on Genesis ("The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis") he says that when things really started going wrong was when Adam died, the first person to die of natural causes in the bible. Once people realized they weren't immortal things all the trouble started. This is the opposite of the case* she presents, when an immortal realizes he's mortal he devotes his life to good.

*By "case" I mean "Star Trek episode"

Posted by: Polybius | Mar 29, 2005 2:44:10 AM


Posted by: MNPundit | Mar 29, 2005 3:16:10 AM

"It's no surprise he'd be interviewed in the aftermath."

If only the Bush adminstration hadd made Clancy its national Security advisor rather than Condi Rice, who famously could not imagine, before 9/11, terrorists deliberately crashing a plane into a building . . .

The same Clancy book has a nice rant by his fictional NSA, on the futility of starting a war-of-choice, which could have been read with profit by those contemplating an attack on Iraq . . .

Posted by: rea | Mar 29, 2005 6:34:44 AM

From where I sit, I'd say an even split of ethicists to scientists would probably be good.

I think that's about right. You need a bunch of scientists there to explain the science to the ethicists, so the ethicists can then tell the scientists why they're evil.

If Dr. Evil had never explained what the "Laser" did, then Austin would never have known it was something worth blowing up.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Mar 29, 2005 6:34:51 AM

Philip Brooks--No theologians allowed! I'm disappointed in you.

Posted by: Abby | Mar 29, 2005 9:43:09 AM

And let's not forget Swift's Struldbrugs, probably the earliest good argument against immortality (though one there are at least potential counters to).

Hey, I'm a chemist. Anybody want to appoint me to, say, the Federal Reserve Board?

Posted by: theophylact | Mar 29, 2005 9:56:34 AM

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