Dorothy Roberts: Scientific Illusion, Corporate Takeover, and Damage to Democracy - Tarrytown 2011





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Published on May 3, 2012

Professor Dorothy Roberts of Northwestern University reflects upon some of the common harms and concerns which surround biotechnology in the closing plenary at the 2011 Tarrytown Meeting.

The Tarrytown Meetings bring together people working to ensure that human biotechnologies and related emerging technologies support rather than undermine social justice, equality, human rights, ecological integrity and the common good.

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Presentation Except:

Scientific Illusion
The most simple response to our students is that they are victims of an illusion. They have been conned, duped, hoodwinked, and bamboozled. Michele Goodwin noted in the opening plenary the importance of distinguishing between what's illusory and what's real, and others followed with the basic imperative captured by the cautionary principle that scientists have the burden of proving that what they claim works safely really works and is really safe.

We are asking scientists to be scientific and to not promote folklore, myths, and hype. For example, Joe Graves pointed out in the working session on racial science that geneticists who claim that race is a biological category written in our genes are applying creationist and not evolutionary theory. In my book, Fatal Invention, I call this belief in the concept of biological races an enduring faith that has proven impervious to scientific evidence. Science has been responsible for giving racial folklore its superficial plausibility by updating its definition, measurements, and rationales without changing what the basic fairy tale is about: once upon a time human beings all over the world were divided into large biological groups called races.

Commercial and Corporate Takeover
Which leads me to my next harm, commercial and corporate takeover of human biotechnologies. In our table discussion after the opening plenary on values, we discussed adding to the leading bioethics principles a new one about commodification, except we couldn't agree on what aspects of human life should not be commodified -- blood, eggs, sperm, organs, DNA? But we could agree that human beings are more valuable than corporate profits and their lives, safety, and welfare should not be sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed under the guise of scientific innovation.

Damage to Democracy
In her powerful reflection on the Ashley X case, Pat Williams noted that the tendency to see everything from a consumerist perspective weakens our ethical deliberations about medical interventions. It also damages our democracy. In the words of David Winickoff, citizenship has been reduced to the power of a credit card.
Democratic Engagement
I think we also agree that we must contest this damage to democracy already underway with a radical democratic engagement with science and technology. This includes state regulation of human biotechnologies, but I would urge us to think of this intervention more broadly. While we might not be able to agree on the details of which technologies should be regulated and how (think of proposed bans on sex selection, for example), we can agree that scientists and big business should not have supreme authority to decide these matters. We should strategize about ways to achieve standing within powerful institutions of science and business and to create mechanisms for ongoing collective oversight and participation in the development and use of the technologies they produce.

There are people suffering across the globe because of obscene inequalities of power -- racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, discrimination against people with disabilities, corporate greed. And no pill, no implant, no gene map, no synthetic microbe, will end this injustice. Only social change will. In my mind, what draws us together is that we understand this and we see how science and biotechnologies have been enlisted to blind people to the need for social change and to keep them from joining together to achieve social justice.

We don't have to accept the consumer citizen role being marketed to us. This new era of biocitizenship can be an opportunity for people dedicated to social justice to intervene collectively in biopolitics -- not just to gain greater access to products of biotechnological research, but to change the relationship between biotechnology and power to create a more humane world.


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