The trouble with putting too much weight in a bioethicist’s opinion

Sally Satel in Pacific Standard:

MTMzMDI3NDI2NjY5MjA1OTgyLast month, Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and public intellectual, argued in a Boston Globe op-ed that bioethicists—those who weigh the ethical implications of biological research—had a moral imperative to “get out of the way” of research. Pinker's assertion was nothing short of a live grenade lobbed into the field of bioethics. While perhaps harsh, there is a sizable kernel of truth in his case.

“A truly ethical bioethics,” Pinker wrote, “should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as 'dignity,' 'sacredness,' or 'social justice.' Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic [about] Nazi atrocities, armies of cloned Hitlers, or people selling their eyeballs on eBay.” We must not succumb, in other words, to science-fiction scenarios that have little likelihood of materializing.

Pinker's disquisition was spurred by calls for a moratorium on research involving a new technology called CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing method that is cheap, quick, and easy to use. With the ability to modify small segments of the DNA of eggs and sperm or of the embryo itself—the so-called germ line—scientists hope to eventually use CRISPR to cure certain genetic diseases, by replacing the genes that cause them. But some bioethicists fear that the technology will work too well, thus raising the specter of “eugenics.” Such research, they claim, is “contrary to human dignity” because “the human germ line should be treated as sacred.”

More here.