Ad Hominem Ad Nauseam

Admittting his inabilty to cite a single stem cell biologist or science organization in support of his view that embryonic stem cells are not needed in light of potential alternative sources, National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru instead responded to our challenge by citing respected Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss.

Mr. Ponnuru, however, misses Weiss’ point, which actually supports our argument. In the article Ponnuru references, Weiss is not saying scientists believe that there are other viable means of deriving pluripotent stem cells, but rather that there are stem cells “in between” embryonic and adult that can differentiate into more types of cells than adult stem cells and less than embryonic stem cells. Weiss refers to, “a continuum of stem cell types, ranging from the embryonic ones that can morph into virtually any kind of tissue but are difficult to tame, up to adult ones that can turn into a limited number of tissues but are relatively easy to control.” Embryonic stem cells remain at one edge of the continuum, because there are no other viable means of obtaining pluripotent stem cells.

More disconcerting to Mr. Ponnuru one day after his gambit must be Saturday’s story in the Post by none other than Rick Weiss, who reports that, in testimony before the United States Senate, the director of the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders, stated: “We are missing out on possible breakthroughs” because of President Bush’s restrictions on abilities to work on new embryonic stem cell lines. The opportunity to do so “would be incredibly important,” according to Dr. Story Landis.

Dr. Landis continued that “science works best when scientists can pursue all avenues of research. If the cure for Parkinson’s disease or juvenile diabetes lay behind one of four doors, wouldn’t you want the option to open all four doors at once instead of one door?”

In case Mr. Ponnuru resorts to his previous effort to characterize such statements by experts as opinions about policy rather than science , we note that the NIH spokesman called Dr. Story’s testimony “her scientific opinion.”

Then on Monday, The Washington Post reported that, “Harvard University researchers Kevin Eggan, Chad Cowan and Douglas A. Melton wrote members of Congress earlier this month to complain that the White House domestic policy office’s report “Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life” was a “misuse and misunderstanding” of their research.” 
 
The scientists also said that, “The White House has clearly gotten it wrong. The overwhelming consensus in the scientific and medical community is that embryonic stem cell research holds the greatest potential to cure diseases and end the suffering of millions.”

All in all, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

January 18, 2007

On Thursday, National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru again attacked our criticism of a White House report on alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, this time focusing on our recent response to his own comments.  We reject his charge that we engaged in an ad hominem argument, a question we leave to the logicians among our readers.  But amid all the dust thrown up by these exchanges we think it would be helpful to once again state our point, perhaps assuaging Ponnuru’s fears that we are being “devious.” (Unlike Ponnuru we question his expertise, not his moral character; the latter does clearly qualify as ad hominen.) The scientific community does not see these alternative methods as viable replacements for embryonic stem cell research. 

Our point is not that we are scientists and Ponnuru is not. In fact, none of us are. Rather, our point is that scientists are scientists and Ponnuru is not. We take pains to cite scientists, scientific organizations, and the relevant scientific community, relying on their expertise in these matters.  Ponnuru does not cite a single stem cell scientist who claims that alternatives to embryonic stem cell research are as promising. 

Ponnuru’s concern with semantics, as well as the thrust of his argument, misses the mark. Rather than join this fruitless debate, it is more important to be clear on the science, and the best means to pursue life-saving cures for suffering patients. Here, thankfully, there is little room for semantic sleight-of-hand. The scientific community has been clear: no alternative methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells are viable replacements for embryonic stem cell research.

While Ponnuru may believe that the science alone does not justify embryonic stem cell research, he should argue that point rather than attempt to downplay the research. 

Shouting Semantics Over Science

January 16, 2007

National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru on Friday criticized our analysis of the exaggerated claims of the White House concerning the scientific potential of alternatives to embryonic stem cells.

Ponnuru accuses us of “not presenting the truth” about “Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life,” a report released last week by the White House, and the comments of stem cell scientists about the research. His criticism is an astounding rhetorical sleight of hand, focusing on semantics rather than scientific fact. Ultimately, the scientific community has reached its consensus: there are no viable alternatives to embryonic stem cells.

Ponnuru claims that we misrepresent the report by saying that it argues adult cell reprogramming is “one of the most promising possibilities” for obtaining pluripotent stem cells and not the most promising among alternative methods. The White House report in question states that, “recent biological advances have raised encouraging possibilities for producing powerful stem cells without harming human embryos,” and then states that adult cell reprogramming is “one of the most promising possibilities” of these alternative approaches.

Whether being “one of the most promising possibilities among encouraging possibilities” is less exaggeration than merely being “one of the most promising possibilities” is a subtle distinction probably better left to the judgment of the author of The Party of Death rather than us.

Ponnuru also argues that the field of adult cell reprogramming “isn’t fallow,” citing a survey article that reviews nine potential approaches. Nine approaches does not a success make; however, noted stem cell scientist Jeanne Loring, commenting on this survey study, states that, “I can easily think of a dozen ways in which one might try to reprogram cells, but ideas, including mine, are cheap.” Ponnuru may be right that the field is not short on ideas; we simply point out that it is currently short on science.

Ponnuru also says that James Battey, a stem cell scientist at the National Institutes of Health, was not referring to adult cell reprogramming research as “pie in the sky,” but rather was referring to near-term cures developed from adult cell reprogramming as such. An examination of the comment in context, however, leaves little doubt concerning Battey’s intent:

Sen. Santorum: Dr. Battey, I just want to pick up on something you said that I thought was significant. You said that ultimately what you think would be optimal is to take adult stem cells and be able to work them back and—I don’t know how you—de-differentiate, I think, was the term you used, is that correct? Is that the term you used?

Battey: Actually, adult cell types…

Santorum: Adult cell types.

Battey: … such as fibroblasts. Yes, this is very much now on the “pie in the sky” category in terms of our ability to do this in any kind of systematic way. (emphasis added)

Ponnuru further claims that we “brush away” the news of amniotic-fluid stem cells. We do not ignore the medical potential of these stem cells, but caution against believing that they will replace embryonic stem cells. And Ponnuru is incorrect in asserting that Dr. Atala, the lead researcher on the amniotic-fluid stem cell paper, simply made a “policy conclusion” in arguing for support for embryonic stem cell research.

Dr. Atala was explaining the scientific impact of his discovery, and whether these new stem cells could replace embryonic stem cells. His conclusion was clear:

“Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion.”

Dr. Atala’s scientific conclusions are shared by other prominent stem cell scientists as well.

Ponnuru even suggests that Dr. Atala and other scientists may be wrong that amniotic-fluid stem cells cannot replace embryonic stem cells because “we have only an informed conjecture that embryonic stem cells can produce any kind of cell.” Of course, this informed conjecture is shared by the American Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the National Academies of Science, the National Institutes of Health, and every prominent stem cell biologist. Perhaps if these scientists read the National Review they wouldn’t be wasting so much time following their “informed conjectures” in the laboratory.

Ponnuru asserts that data from a survey that concludes there are 400,000 excess embryos in fertility clinics in the U.S. is “fake,” but does not give us an alternative calculation. He also notes that the report concludes that only three percent of these excess embryos are available for research. Yet three percent of 400,000 would yield 12,000 embryos; even a few thousand new stem cell lines would dwarf the 200 or so likely available in the world’s labs today and the 21 approved for research under the current administration policy.

Ponnuru is right to argue that embryonic stem cell research should be held to the same standards as that of alternative methods. But the standards should be those of the scientific community and not the pundits of the National Review. As scientists have repeatedly said, there is no current alternative approach that is a replacement for embryonic stem cell research. Unlike Ponnuru, but along with the scientific community, we advocate research on all sources of stem cells that may take us into an exciting future of cell-based medicine.

Ponnuru provides an entertaining rant, replete with rhetorical flourishes and pithy phrases worthy of a first rate polemicist. But when science is the issue, it’s often best to let the scientists speak for themselves.

To contact Jonathan Moreno for comment on stem cell policy, please contact:

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202.682.1611 or sgibbons@americanprogress.org

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202.741.6268 or tlecompte@americanprogress.org

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202.741.6273 or tkincaid@americanprogress.org