by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” – Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies (1927)
A recent exchange on the bioethics listserv began with a panicked message that the Presidential bioethics commissions website (bioethics.gov) has gone dark. A flurry of messages asked what this might mean for bioethics and for meaningful moral discourse in the Trump administration. Soon, cooler heads prevailed explaining that Georgetown retains the repository of all of the several commissions and that the website came down on January 20, at the transition of power. When there is a transition of administration, it is standard (in the internet age) for websites to come down from old programs and to change while new staff and programs are instituted. In other words, this was business as usual.
Good bioethics begins with good facts is a common mantra and was certainly a consistently stated set of lessons in my bioethics training. In an era of claims of “fake news,” when stories may be planted by campaigns of misinformation, and when reality is denied minutes after one has made statements about a topic, finding good facts can be a challenge. If bioethicists, however, are to remain protectors of the practice of moral deliberation then it our duty to not only have good facts but to also be sure that we do not panic. We must offer informed analysis and perspective based on having good facts.
A fact is “a thing that is known or proven to be true.” They exist outside of interpretation (what a fact means) and outside of opinion and belief (climate change is real; I don’t believe in climate change). We may disagree on whether a fact has been adequately proven or on what the fact means. Facts can be used to support or disprove a claim. They can be ignored, hidden, discovered, or even forgotten. A fact, however, is independently real and true.
On January 24, I posted a blog about the new administration’s restrictions on public communication by government scientists. I was incensed by this move on the administration’s behalf and to be honest I am still pretty much incensed by almost everything this administration does. Within a few days of that posting, a researcher who works in government science contacted me. He said that this policy of censorship is nothing new; it was just more upfront and public now than under past administrations where it was more implicit. If you work for the government, then your papers and presentations are supposed to be internally reviewed to see what the policy implications might be. You cannot lobby for or against any political positions or candidates (under the Hatch Act) or policy. You cannot speak to the media without prior permission.
Consider that under Bush (43), those working in government health were not supposed to speak about abortion or stem cells. Under Obama, the researcher shared that invited paper on food policy was not approved because the paper argued for limiting government authority in an era where Michelle Obama was working for more government policy on food policy. My source also shared that he worked on a paper with a colleague from a country with a difficult relationship with the U.S. Internal review asked for a change to reduce criticisms of that other country for purposes of international relations. Under Trump, my source presumed that climate change might be off the table.
I still stand by my post because the idea that under a Trump administration or Obama or Bush, that the government would control what a scientist would say is appalling and violates notions of scientific freedom and the fair sharing of knowledge. But where I was not working with “good facts” was in thinking that this was something new. The new was that the administration was being transparent about these communication restrictions and a bit heavy-handed about it.
Beyond carefully weighing and seeking good facts, and not panicking, a bioethicist brings careful critical thinking to the news and policy. As I am busily working on knitting my brain hat for the March for Science on April 22, I along with many who work in and around science, am concerned that appointees to national science agencies not only do not believe in the science of their charges, but have actively worked to abolish those agencies. I, along with many in and around science, am concerned about the undermining of facts being subsumed under beliefs. And I, along with many in and around science, am concerned that science education programs are being reduced or eliminated. On the other side, if scientists take to the streets to march against the policies of the administration, then science may be damaging its claims to being objective (putting aside studies of science that show even scientific objectivity is influence by human subjectivity).
Many bioethicists have written on the role of bioethics under the Trump administration. All seem to agree that we are unlikely to have a presidential commission and that as a field we are unlikely to be on his radar. But many of the policies he has touted—rolling back protections for trans-students, the global gag rule, repealing the ACA—fall squarely as topics of bioethics interest. Thus, it behooves us as scholars and clinicians in bioethics to make sure we are working with good facts, that we are pointing out flawed arguments, and that we advocate for social justice and ethical treatment of all people.
I can do none of the above, however, unless I have good facts and don’t panic. Most importantly, that I take the privilege of time that those of us in bioethics have, to carefully consider the arguments, the theories, the policies, and the facts to provide wise counsel and discourse.