No Comment — December 4, 2007, 8:24 am

Krauthammer’s Pseudo-Science

Several readers regularly send me notes asking why, in reviews of the editorial content of the Washington Post, I spare Charles Krauthammer? There are two writers on the page who trend to the right and who I consider important: Charles Krauthammer and George Will. As my readers know, I love George Will. I may not agree with him all the time, but I do appreciate him. He’s a genuine Tory conservative, a breed that seems almost extinct in Karl Rove’s America. Krauthammer is a different animal altogether. Is he really a conservative? Certainly he is in the sense in which Karl Rove uses the term: a supporter of George Bush. But I don’t think so; in fact I only rarely detect conservative values behind his columns. I would use a Burkean test of what is conservative. Krauthammer is the opposite. He is a programmatic thinker. He writes very well. He’s also had a life of hardship that makes for an inspirational tale. That led me to refrain from criticism.

But for more than six months I’ve been hard pressed to find a Krauthammer column that has any value. Krauthammer has become a predictable propagandist. He seems to see his role as salvaging the Bushies, or at least making their inane conduct seem intellectually defensible. And he continually passes off feeblemindedness as reason. At length, he’s taken on the tools of the Bushies, too. And that includes pseudo-science to go alongside the pseudo-reason.

In a recent column, Krauthammer tries to make sense of the Bush position on stem cell research. There is an important moral issue surrounding stem cell research. But there is also a dispute which pits science and healthcare concerns against a partisan electoral agenda. The Rovian agenda seeks to confuse an issue as an ethical or moral one in order to score points with a Religious Right base. As Krauthammer makes clear, he’ll take the partisan point-scoring any day. That’s very revealing. And it shows that Krauthammer has moved a great distance. He used to be a healthcare professional, after all. Here’s the core of his piece from Friday:

A decade ago, Thomson was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells. Last week, he (and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka) announced one of the great scientific breakthroughs since the discovery of DNA: an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells. Even a scientist who cares not a whit about the morality of embryo destruction will adopt this technique because it is so simple and powerful. The embryonic stem cell debate is over.

Which allows a bit of reflection on the storm that has raged ever since the August 2001 announcement of President Bush’s stem cell policy. The verdict is clear: Rarely has a president — so vilified for a moral stance — been so thoroughly vindicated.

So Krauthammer is summoning up Dr. Thomson, who really is one of the premier figures in the area, in defense of Bush’s position which he calls “moral.” But not every appeal to morality is in fact moral. Sometimes it is just the opposite. And not every citation to science is scientific. Sometimes it’s deceitful.

Dr. Thomson, to his lasting credit, has decided to respond to Krauthammer’s manipulative praise. What Krauthammer writes is downright dishonest, he suggests:

Far from vindicating the current U.S. policy of withholding federal funds from many of those working to develop potentially lifesaving embryonic stem cells, recent papers in the journals Science and Cell described a breakthrough achieved despite political restrictions. In fact, work by both the U.S. and Japanese teams that reprogrammed skin cells depended entirely on previous embryonic stem cell research. At a time when nearly 60 percent of Americans support human embryonic stem cell research, U.S. stem cell policy runs counter to both scientific and public opinion. President Bush’s repeated veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which has twice passed the House and Senate with votes from Republicans and Democrats alike, further ignores the will of the American people…

Since 1998, many strategies for addressing sanctity-of-life concerns have been pursued. While commendable, these efforts remain preliminary, and none so far has suggested a magic bullet. In the same way, the recent tandem advances in the United States and by Shinya Yamanaka’s team in Japan are far from being a Holy Grail, as Charles Krauthammer inaccurately described them. Though potential landmarks, these studies are only a first step on the long road toward eventual therapies.

Krauthammer’s central argument — that the president’s misgivings about embryonic stem cell research inspired innovative alternatives — is fundamentally flawed, too. Yamanaka was of course working in Japan, and scientists around the world are pursuing the full spectrum of options, in many cases faster than researchers in the United States.

The great shame is that the Friday column is representative of much of what Krauthammer has written in recent years. He is a very great talent. But he has enlisted in a terrible cause, and his powers of critical observation have failed him. Krauthammer would serve his readers better if he were to demonstrate a bit of detachment and more concern about science and the truth. His friend in the White House is already beyond redemption.

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