Scientific Sophistry

Plato and Aristotle were well acquainted with the art of sophistry.  Plato referred to the sophists as “image makers” and Aristotle observed that the sophists taught the skill of “making the worse argument seem the better.”  In other words, sophistry is the art of using language for the purpose of persuasion, but not necessarily to communicate truth.

Recently EuroStemCell (a European stem cell consortium) reported its concern about the European Court of Justice’s potential ban of patents that utilize human embryonic stem cells.  To respond to the European Court of Justice, scientists are invited to sign a letter in protest against a possible ban of patents that employ hESCs.  The letter contains the following reasoning:

“Embryonic stem cells are cell lines, not embryos. They are derived using surplus in vitro fertilized eggs donated after fertility treatment and can be maintained indefinitely.” http://www.eurostemcell.org/commentanalysis/open-letter-stem-cell-patent-case-could-have-far-reaching-impact

It is as if by highlighting the obvious, i.e., that stem cells are not embryos, that the destruction of human embryos is not part and parcel of deriving stem cells in the first place.  Instead, scientists simply make use of “fertilized eggs,” again, a reluctance on their part to acknowledge that fertilization of the ovum is where human life begins.  Or, that the stem cells are “derived using surplus in vitro fertilized eggs donated after fertility treatment,” as if the use of leftover embryos justifies the endeavor.

And, just in case anyone throws out the “but what about induced pluripotent stem cell research” objection, the letter cautions that iPSC research is “still imperfect,” implying that hESC research is closer than iPSC to perfection.

And finally, the letter contains a scare tactic for good measure.  The concern is that “European discoveries could be translated into applications elsewhere, at a potential cost to the European citizen.”

So there you have it!  The letter performs linguistic gymnastics to obscure an procedure that destroys human life but shows less potential than iPSC and adult stem cell research.  Sophistry at its best!

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John Kilner

Thank you for calling our attention to this. We were just discussing stem cell research this morning in the Intensive Institute course at TIU/CBHD and noting that one of the biggest problems with engaging the issue of stem cell research is the misleading way that people use terminology, so that a discussion of the merits becomes almost impossible. The “fertilized egg” terminology you cite is a fine example of that. Once fertilization has taken place, there is not an egg present anymore. A new entity has come into being that is not sperm or egg. So to say that embryonic… Read more »