Michael Fumento has a nice article here making a persuasive case that non-embryonic stem cells have greater proven capacity to cure illness than embryonic stem cells. Now, I am no biologist, and I am quite willing to believe that a proponent of embryonic stem cell research could write an opposing article muddying the water beyond my ability to clarify it. (Although his argument that the New York Times, as part of its anti-Bush agenda, is simply lying about the science is probably irrefutable.) Not least, they could argue that it is unfair to restrict research into embryonic stem cells and then point to the lack of research success as vindication. (Please, no comments about how only federal funding was restricted, because (a) I know that and (b) I don't care.)
But let's accept for the moment that non-embryonic stem cells can be teased into doing all the things that embryonic stem cells might be able to do: they can be made to replicate endlessly in a laboratory and they can become any kind of cell. Let's also accept that the resistance to using embryonic stem cells is irrational, as, in fact, it is, and that it is a minority opinion, as it might be. In a democracy, to what extent should we defer to the deeply held irrational beliefs of a substantial minority?
When it comes to stem cells, I share the irrational belief: I think that the inherent dignity of the human being is incompatible with taking stem cells from embryos for either research or treatment. So, I would like the majority to defer to my deeply held irrational belief and, if there really is no obvious benefit from embryonic stem cells, would be insulted if the majority didn't defer to my irrationality. It's my government, too, and it really shouldn't be doing things that I strongly disapprove of -- especially if there's no obvious benefit. But what about issues in which I'm part of the rational majority?
That's a harder question, in no small part because it's depressingly difficult to come up with an issue in which I am both part of the majority and the majority is rational. The only such issue that comes to mind is the Iraqi war. The decision to go to war was rational and popular. The anti-war position strongly believed that going to war was not something their government should do. To what extent was I willing to defer to that belief? I was perfectly willing to hear them out, to treat their view with respect (it was an eminently respectable view, even though wrong) and to let them try to make their case. On the other hand, I wasn't willing to not go to war.
There's also the controversy over teaching Intelligent Design. ID is not rational and I don't believe in it, although I might be in the minority. The smart political position seems to be to say that one personally believes in evolution, but that we should "teach the controversy." I'm fine with teaching the controversy, but it shouldn't be taught in Biology Class because it is not a Biology controversy. On the other hand, if the irrational majority doesn't want evolution taught in their schools, that's perfectly fine with me albeit a different question entirely.
My inchoate sense here is that we owe cheerful, ungrudging respect to the deeply held irrational beliefs of our fellow citizens. By cheerful and ungrudging, I mean something more than just the cold cost/benefit decision to defer to the irrational beliefs of others in return for their deference to my irrational beliefs. I mean something more than the realization that I could be wrong and that prudence thus requires that I not trash an idea I might later be forced to accept. I mean, I suppose, that the mere fact that an idea is imbued with importance by a fellow citizen means that I should give it due deference. How much deference is due? As much as I can spare while not sacrificing anything I care about.