What Are Stem Cells?: Definitions at the Intersection of Science and Politics

What Are Stem Cells?: Definitions at the Intersection of Science and Politics

by John Alexander Lynch

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In recent years political, religious, and scientific communities have waged an ethical debate regarding the development and research of embryonic stem cells. On the one hand, does the manipulation of embryonic stem cells destroy human life? On the other hand, do limitations imposed on stem cell research harm the patients who might otherwise benefit?

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In recent years political, religious, and scientific communities have waged an ethical debate regarding the development and research of embryonic stem cells. On the one hand, does the manipulation of embryonic stem cells destroy human life? On the other hand, do limitations imposed on stem cell research harm the patients who might otherwise benefit?

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“Lynch addresses a topic of considerable social importance and encourages academic thought about it. The issue of definition is a very good one, interesting to rhetoric scholars, and highly pertinent to this public issue. It would be of interest to those who study rhetoric, culture, and ethics.” --John Lyne, a professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh, has written numerous articles and book chapters on the rhetoric of science and bioethics that have appeared in Argumentation and Advocacy, Rhetoric of Public Affairs, and the Quarterly Journal of Speech

"Although bioethical issues surrounding stem cell research during the Bush and Obama administrations form a backdrop, Lynch (communication, Univ. of Cincinnati) is more concerned here with how language is used than with ethical positions. He presents definitions not so much as reflections of reality, but more as malleable tools for shaping public debate and policy. He introduces the idea of "scientistic idioms" to describe how various proponents and opponents of stem cell research incorporate the language of science to bolster their positions. Ironically, critics of stem cell research often use scientific idioms to challenge and undermine the authority of stem cell researchers. Lynch also frames his analysis in terms of a 'Manichean idiom' that presents stem cell research in terms of struggles between good and evil. For proponents of stem cell research, the Manichean idiom may take the form of scientific progress versus benighted religious or political agendas. Opponents may use the same idiom to contrast overreaching science with protection of human values. Lynch's analysis is useful for understanding not only debates over stem cell research, but also contentious issues such as teaching evolution in schools--a topic briefly addressed in the conclusion. Part of the 'Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique' series. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals."

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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What Are Stem Cells?

Definitions at the Intersection of Science and Politics


Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1748-5

Chapter One

Science-Based Controversies and Idioms of Public Argument

In August 2000, PBS's NewsHour aired a debate on embryonic stem (ES) cells. The representatives of the two sides-Richard Doerflinger, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Daniel Perry, chairman of the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research-took little time highlighting what they saw as the core issues in stem cell research. According to Doerflinger, "for the first time in federal history, U.S. History, the federal government will actually be taking a class of human beings, a form of developing human life which is what even the NIH calls these embryos, and destroying that life for the benefit of others." for Doerflinger, the creation of embryonic stem cells destroys human life, an action even more troubling because scientists could alternatively obtain stem cells from adults without the loss of life. For Perry, in contrast, the issue is creating effective therapies for cancer and Parkinson's disease. Adult stem cells do not work: "Even after all of these years, we have not been able to make adult stem cells replace potentially, any cell in the body. That's the great promise of embryonic stem cells.... How can we tell a young woman, diabetic at age 20, we're going to wait five years and just study adult stem cells and we may say, well that didn't work, now we're going to try something else—when in the meantime, she may have faced the loss of sight, amputation, kidney failure? I think it would be immoral and unconscionable to tell patients wait until first we try this avenue that so far has not proven effective." It is unsurprising that a spokesperson for the Catholic Church opposes scientific experiments that involve the earliest stages of human life and that an advocate for patients and biomedical research would support those experiments. Rather, the language in this exchange should attract our attention: It takes on a scientistic quality. Doerflinger grounds his concerns about a "class" of embryos in United States history and the decisions of the national Institutes of Health, while Perry depicts the progress of scientific experiments and uses that as a warrant for making a moral argument (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, 2000).

These language choices are not idiosyncratic to this one exchange and require further examination. While the different policy proposals, ethical stances, and political issues at play have been discussed in popular press books as well as academic work on ethics and politics (Cohen, 2007; fox, 2007; Herold, 2006; Holland, Lebacqz, & Zoloth, 2001; Institute of Medicine, 2002), an examination of the public discourse on this issue and how the various strategies of definition and argument shape public attitudes toward stem cell research is missing. Almost all public debate about stem cells from 1998 through 2001 used language similar to that employed by Doerflinger and Perry in the PBS debate. Whereas topics of medical innovation and progress, the rights of fetuses, and the rights of patients make up the content addressed, each side is working hard to define what stem cells are in relation to those issues while doing so in language borrowed from science and scientific authorities. While each side of the debate is grounded in different social and political locations and while they view the issue through different cultural lenses, both sides turn to a scientistic idiom, a combination of scientific and quasi-scientific rhetorical strategies and key words. Individuals use this language to define what counts as real and thus embed their own values and ideological positions into the taken-for-granted assumptions that shape a debate. This book will examine the first stage of debate about ES cells from 1998 to 2001 and show how the debate focuses on arguments by definition that are developed in a science-like idiom of public argument. While the debate about ES cell research has continued since 2001, the vocabulary and strategies used to define ES cells were well established by the time President George W. Bush spoke on the issue in late 2001. Arguments since then have sometimes used combative or moralistic language that creates a Manichean framework in which the virtuous must defeat scientific attempts to re-create the world in the image of Brave New World or in which noble scientists must persevere in the face of religious persecution. Yet, the key issues are still those established prior to August 2001. finally, a scientistic idiom was reasserted when President Barack obama undid President Bush's restrictions on ES cell research in a speech on March 9, 2009. In order to understand the debate that continues to unfold, it is necessary to look back to when the definitions at the heart of the debate were fashioned, to identify the resources for rhetorical invention that were used, to see how they were mobilized, and to learn how they created our understanding of "stem cell" today.

Scientistic Idiom and Definition

Rhetors in the stem cell debate address three questions. First, why study ES cells? Scientists and politicians must define what ES cells are in a way that makes their study valuable. Second, are ES cells like fetuses? If they are, ES cell research violates the 1995 Dickey Amendment that forbids the destruction of human embryos in scientific research. Third, what is the relationship between embryonic and adult stem cells? If ES cells and adult stem cells are similar—if they have equivalent potencies or capabilities—then scientists and society have an alternative focus for research that does not raise moral objections about the life of the fetus. Answers to these three questions involve attempts at definition that cluster around the fundamental issue, "What are stem cells?" furthermore, the answers to these questions express a variation of the public vernacular that I call "scientistic," or science-like.

Science-like idioms have appeared because science plays an increasing role in public deliberation (Beck, 1992; Irwin, 2001; Mitchell, 2000; Weingart, 2002). for some, this development represents the colonization of a weakened public sphere by the technical sphere and technoscientific modes of argument (farrell & Goodnight, 1981; Goodnight, 1982; Irwin, 2001; Keränen, 2005). Others have noted that the application of scientific principles and practices to the public sphere undermines scientific claims to be the sole, objective source of information (Beck, 1992; Weingart, 2002). Finally, some claim that the movement of scientific issues into public forums highlights the interdependence and mutual influence science and the public have on each other (Boyd, 2002; Fabj & Sobnosky, 1995; Phillips, 1996; Taylor, 1996). Despite the variable judgments about the relative power science has over the public, these studies confirm John Lyne's observation that "the general culture incorporates scientific and quasi-scientific language, authority and modes of explanation into its talk about matters of common interest" (Lyne, 1996, p. 128).

Scholars have identified scientific and quasi-scientific modes of language used in multiple forums, but beyond the recognition of the link between science and popularized science, they do not consider how the language used moves beyond "common interest" to motivate collective action. Science journalism often appeals to potential applications and the experience of wonder in the face of nature's grandeur (Fahnestock, 1993). Popularizations of science often present a Baconian vision of science, which focuses on the object of investigation and portrays science as driven solely by empiricism and observation without theory (Curtis, 1994; Myers, 1990), and a host of different strategies have been used by scientists and lay audiences to render science intelligible (e.g., Fabj & Sob Mosky, 1995; Fahnestock, 1999). Often, these modes of language appear in science-based controversies, and as Gordon Mitchell notes, "When truth claims packaged in the parlance of scientific objectivity meet resistance in deliberative forums, and open public debate ensues, the stage is set for public controversy. In this situation, argumentation can take a variety of forms and can occur in a multitude of different forums" (Mitchell, 2000, p. 17).

Yet, this variety of forms and forums is more than a corrupted derivation of scientific language; this variety does more than mimic science to create the illusion of understanding. Many of these rhetorical practices fulfill two functions for public deliberation. The first function is the creation of "real definitions," argumentative strategies establishing quasi-stable points from which individuals can make sense of the world and argue for various courses of action. The second function is to make these real definitions comport with the public's ideological commitments so they can become the basis for collective action. While this language, or vocabulary, exists on a continuum with science, the different goals and functions it fulfills distinguish it from a mere "quasi-scientific" language. I call it a scientistic idiom to recognize that the rhetorical strategies and arguments associated with science become a necessary component of public debate while those public debates become independent of the judgment of science and the technical sphere itself. In other words, the public sphere borrows scientific language while eschewing the scientific imprimatur for the use of that language.


Definitions are more than mere referential resources found in a dictionary and more than stipulations or temporary conveniences for the sake of exposition. Definition is a key step in any debate or discussion. As Zarefsky, Miller-Tutzauer, and Tutzauer (1984) note, "to choose a definition is to plead a cause ... to name an object or idea is to influence attitudes about it" (p. 113). Furthermore, these definitions are themselves arguments (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, p. 213). As arguments, definitions appear in three modes: argument from definition, argument about definition, and argument by definition. Richard Weaver (1952) proposed the concept of argument from definition, where the definition acts like the major premise of a deductive argument; once one accepts the definition, the conclusions one draws about action and attitude are inevitable. Edward Schiappa (1993) discusses how many debates around definition are arguments about definition—debates concerning the appropriateness of a definition for a given case—instead of arguments from them, and David Zarefsky (1998) introduced the concept of argument by definition where the definition of a word, concept, or fragment is simply asserted during the course of argument.

According to Weaver, arguments from definition presuppose a belief that definitions are grounded in timeless or eternal essences: Arguments from definition aim at "getting people to see what is most permanent in existence, or what transcends the world of change and accident. The realm of essence is the realm above the flux of phenomena, and definitions are of essences and genres" (Weaver, 1952, p. 212). Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) identified dissociation as a strategy of definition, a strategy that prototypically divides a concept into its "appearance" and its "reality." Later scholarship on definition has emphasized that dissociation is the key strategy used by rhetors to create "real definitions" that determine what a concept "really" is (Goodwin, 1991; McGee, 1999; Schiappa, 1993, 2003). Contemporary scholars of communication and rhetoric have argued that practices of real definition typically involve dissociation and argument from definition, and they have argued that real definitions are products of naïve realism and a "picture theory" of language that ultimately treat definition as the identification of an absolute essence independent of human action and language use (Doyle, 1997; Goodwin, 1991; McGee, 1999; Schiappa, 1985, 1993, 1996, 2003; Titsworth, 1999; Walton, 2001).

This argument against real definitions and the rhetorical practices that make them possible is overextended in two ways. Some argue that creating definitions is conceptually impossible (Doyle, 1997). Others claim that certain forms of definition are irreparably tainted by naïve realism (Schiappa, 2003). These positions recognize the limitations of naïve realism, but they fail to account for how people define things and argue by, from, and about definition. Definitions play a central role in many debates in science and in politics, but naïve realism is not the only perspective through which scholars can understand argument or the only way that publics approach definition. Definitions can change and develop over the course of a debate, which means they are not the identification of an "essence" or "reality" independent of the arguers or context of the debate. Instead, they provide a quasi-stable point from which individuals can make sense of the world and argue for various courses of action. Judgment calls about reality versus appearance occur every day in public rhetoric. Any individual arguing in the public sphere would be hard-pressed to avoid claims that some issues or objects are mere appearance belying the reality they perceive or experience.

Instead of eliminating real definitions or offering innumerable warnings about the contingent nature of our definitions, which is the antidote usually offered for definition's supposed essentialism (McGee, 1999; Schiappa, 2003), rhetorical scholars should reconfigure their understanding of real definitions and view them not as manifestations of a naïve realism but as the precondition for collective social action. Definitions play an important role in shaping people's psychosocial consensus about the world. This consensus determines what counts as "real" for a given group of people. The "real" underlying collective action is not the "reality" of naïve realism: We should understand "the real" as a psychosocial consensus about the world and naïve realism's "reality" as a construct stipulating the independence of the world from our perception (Goodwin, 1991; Lynch, 2006). This means that what counts as "real" will both change depending on the groups engaged in definition and evolve over time. Proponents and opponents in the debate about ES cell research offer various definitions of "stem cell" in scientific, political, and journalistic forums. While these definitions will have similarities, this is a result of similar issues playing across different contexts. As those issues change and diversify—for example, when scientists debate a specific finding, or politicians consider the minutiae of funding decisions, or journalists shift from discussing stem cells as a political issue toward discussing it as an issue for business and investment—the specific arguments from, about, and by definition will change.

Definition's capacity for creating our consensus about the "real" dovetails with the positioning of science as the source of objective knowledge about the world, and it is also reinforced by the practice of argument by definition. The arguments made through definition can become the basis for collective action more readily when the definition is treated as a matter-of-fact observation the arguer merely notes in passing. By treating a definition as a fact and presenting it in language borrowed from science, one bolsters the strength of the argument by making it appear as a feature of the world beyond debate. The more prosaic and noncontroversial a definition appears, the better it fulfills its function. Yet, argument by definition will not always be possible. Sometimes an arguer will be forced to show his or her hand and argue from definition in order to make the implications for action clear, but this opens up the possibility for later argument about that definition.

Link to American Ideology

In addition to providing real definitions, scientistic idioms must offer definitions that comport with American ideological commitments. While ideology has a broad range of meanings and uses (Eagleton, 1991, pp. 1–31; Williams, 1983, pp. 153-157), I follow Robert Asen and understand ideology as "a strategic set of claims, values and beliefs that advocates may invoke to build collectives, forge alliances, and highlight differences," as well as shaping our consensus about the taken-for-granted facts about a given issue (Asen, 2009, p. 266). The link to ideology does not mean that scientistic idioms are reducible to biorhetoric, where individuals transform moral statements into naturalistic or factual statements (Lyne, 1990). Instead, scientistic idioms use real definitions to provide "facts" that shape a debate and become the fodder for ethical and moral judgment. As Ulrich Beck (1992) notes in his discussion of risk and science, " 'facts'—the former centerpieces of reality—are nothing but answers to questions that could just as well have been asked differently, products of rules for gathering and omitting" (p. 166). All parties in a debate will try to provide facts and evidence to support their moral judgment, and they will try to present those facts as agreed-upon statements derived from a scientific consensus (see Weingart, 2002). While argument by definition is the primary strategy for establishing what counts as real in a given debate, the definitions offered must comport themselves with American ideological commitments in order to motivate collective action. Such an explicit connection to ideology would seem to undermine the appearance of scientific objectivity, but four factors mitigate this.


Excerpted from What Are Stem Cells? by JOHN LYNCH Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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