Dec 4, 2018

sympathy and family

George Estreich’s opinion piece on Chinese scientist He Juankui’s claim to have produced the first genetically edited babies does a beautiful job of taking apart the narratives that tend to come with technologies like this:

In arguments for new biotechnologies, it’s common to deride critics as fearful or irrational. He’s video is no exception. In it, he asserts that “the media hyped panic about Louise Brown’s birth as the first IVF baby.” Building on this theme in a second video (there are five in all), He inveighs against the phrase “designer baby,” contrasting “vocal critics” with silently suffering families. By implication, you’re either pro-technology or pro-suffering. That’s a false binary, of course: Untested treatments can lead to suffering.

But He’s pitch also illuminates a common problem. In arguments like these, the categories of reason and emotion are invoked in contradictory ways. If people disagree with you, they’re dismissed as panicky and irrational. If they’re sympathetic parents who bolster your case, though, then their emotions are authoritative. In the second video, He contrasts parents and an unnamed naysayer: “[The parents] may not be the director of an ethics center quoted by the New York Times, but they are no less authorities on what’s right and wrong, because it’s their lives on the line.”

Actually, it’s their children’s lives on the line. Also, invoking sympathetic parents is itself an emotional appeal.

Here’s the whole piece.