STEM CELLS….I mentioned Willam Saletan’s stem cell article in Slate last night, but only to take a snarky shot at Saletan’s two-faced criticism of John Kerry’s public speaking habits. But the substance of the column was pretty shoddy too, and tonight I’d like to address his main complaint head on.

Saletan says he is concerned that embryonic stem cell enthusiasts sometimes oversell the benefits of stem cell therapy in their public pronouncements. Now, this would not exactly be the first time in history that an interest group has done this, and I’m sure we can all join in wishing that we lived in a world in which the public carefully and soberly weighed the details of scientific issues before passing judgment on them. But Saletan goes further than this:

The stem-cell movement has become ideological. One scientist who is organizing his colleagues for Kerry told the Post that stem-cell research has become an “icon” for broader complaints about Bush’s policies. He added that his group has adopted “ideology trumps science” as its theme.

What Saletan doesn’t get is that this is exactly right. Forget the details about whether stem cell therapy is good for Alzheimers, or whether embryonic stem cells are better or worse than adult stem cells. None of that is what really matters.

What really matters is that scientific details ought to be left up to scientists, not to administration ideologues. Let scientists decide what to investigate and when. If they go down a blind alley, funding will dry up and they’ll go somewhere else. That’s how science works.

As for the moral arguments, let’s insist on a full and complete discussion of those too ? without the usual shilly shallying and prevaricating. The idea that a 1-week old embryo is a human being has always struck me as depressing: a nihilistically mechanical view of humanity in which DNA + miscellaneous chemicals = human life. Still, it’s a fact that some people feel this way. But if they do, then they have to accept the logical consequences of this view in their public speech too: a complete ban on all abortion, all fertility treatments that utilize multiple eggs, and all embryonic stem cell research. Not just a ban on federal funding, but a complete ban. Put that on the table and I think we’d find out pretty quickly how many people really believe that humanity begins at conception.

If Saletan thinks both sides should show all their cards, this one is the ace of spades. Let’s play it face up and see who takes the trick.