Why interview Steven Pinker on my blog if I strongly disagree with him?

blog ethosEarlier this week I posted an interview with Steven Pinker on CRISPR, human germline modification, and bioethics.

With only a few exceptions, I strongly disagree with Pinker’s philosophy in these areas and I knew going into the interview that his answers would likely go against my own views. I also expected the interview would anger some people. That is exactly what happened and I heard from a few upset people, although most feedback was positive on having done the interview.

Still, why give a forum and a large audience to someone with whom I strongly disagree?

Part of the mission of this blog is to spark discussion on important issues related to innovative medicine and biotechnology. Discussion amongst a circle of people who largely agree can be somewhat useful and I suppose it “feels good” in terms of a sort of mutual self-validation. However, discussion and dialogue inclusive of people with very distinct opinions is far more valuable and educational for a community. That kind of diverse discussion can be quite uncomfortable at times or even make people angry, but its unique value is worth that risk. Of course discussions are not simply binary or even ternary as shown in the image above. The point is to get people engaged with each other even if they differ strongly on key issues.

Just related to CRISPR-Cas9 and human germline modification you can read widely different views in interviews here with Jennifer Doudna, George Church, Nita Farahany, Maria Konovalenko, Natasha Vita-More, and now Steven Pinker. Stay tuned for more in this area and expect additional, very distinct views. I’m not aware of any place else (websites, journals, etc.) that has had as wide a scope of scholarly discussions on human germline modification. Hopefully this will greatly aid in the expeditious development of wise policies on this crucial issue.

More broadly, part of the mission of this blog is to have a diversity of participants whether it is in the comments, guest posts, or interviews. This embrace of inclusion of diverse views extends to other topics well beyond human germline modification and historically has focused on the area of how to best balance innovation and regulation/safety in new stem cell and regenerative medicine treatments. Over the years this has meant interviewing leading influencers in that arena including some controversial figures such as the people running stem cell clinics selling non-FDA approved “treatments”. At times that has been a wild ride, but overall it has served the community well by boosting transparency and providing a place for dialogue that has happened nowhere else. I also press people with difficult, probing questions. No puff interviews.

Let’s keep the conversations going.

2 thoughts on “Why interview Steven Pinker on my blog if I strongly disagree with him?

  1. Hi Paul-

    I met Steve Pinker at the BEINGS meeting in Atlanta a few months ago, and I thought he was taking a radical position just to gain attention.
    I’ve read some of his writings since, including your interview, and I find that I’m glad that he is bringing this up. I do think there’s an important role for bioethics – as you know, I’m a semi-professional bioethicist myself.
    But I think that there is often not enough “bio” in the ethics, which is a knowledge of both current and historical biomedical science and its consequences. This can lead to a stubborn resistance to new ideas, which in the absence of understanding of the science does indeed smother progress.
    That’s why I think that more scientists need to be involved in bioethics- we’re the ones being judged, after all, and we should be able to explain and defend our work, to the public as well as to professional ethicists.


  2. @Jeanne Loring,

    While I fully agree that scientists and physicians should be first-class participants in biomedical ethics discussions, I suspect that if I were arguing your position I would be asking Steve Pinker to “get off my side.” I was appalled to see, in his remarks on this site, such easy disregard for autonomy — founded upon nothing less than a reference to the Tuskegee study. If the attitude seemingly conveyed in those remarks were to prevail in public policy, it is hard for me personally to imagine that we would not witness Tuskegee all over again.

    In that light, I shall add my further $0.02 that an understanding and remembrance of the ethical breaches of the past (and a desire to avoid their repetition) do not — or at least not always/necessarily — imply “absence of the understanding of the science [that] does indeed smother progress.” In fact, I suggest that they may often accompany a very good understanding indeed.

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