Stem Cell Chicanery: Ramesh Ponnuru quotes himself out of context

When Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum and National Review Corner blogger Ramesh Ponnuru went at it over stem cells recently, I was quite startled by something. I’m quite used to creationists misleadingly quoting scientists out of context, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone quote themselves out of context. Let me explain.

Drum sees Ramesh as snidely intimating that defenders of embryonic research are less than sincere. Ramesh begs to differ. Here’s the offending paragraph from Ramesh that started everything off:

Yuval is right: It’s not a time for gloating. For one thing, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves in estimating the political impact of this breakthrough: We should wait at least a few days to see how the advocates of embryo-destructive stem-cell research react before concluding that the battle is over. (In the past, they have done what they could to minimize the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells.)

And here is how Ramesh characterizes what he said above:

My point was that the political debate over whether the federal government should fund certain forms of embryo-destructive research or allow certain other forms of it would not be over under certain conditions. If, for example, these people believe that embryo-destructive research (or certain forms of it) still have advantages that the new research methods don’t have, or that it is still important to encourage research of all types, then the debate isn’t over, although it will change.

Go back to my original 4:41 p.m. post: I said that in the past proponents of embryo-destructive stem-cell research had “minimized the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells”; that’s exactly what I’m saying they might still do.

So Ramesh insists that all he meant was that pro-ESCR people might have further arguments for ESCR, and only an illiterate would think that he ever hinted at anyones insincerity. But notice what he cut out from his self-quotation: the “In the past, they have done what they could to minimize” part. The part of his paragraph which just so happens to most strongly imply that he thinks pro-ESCR folks have actively tried to spin or avoid the issue.

That’s a truly masterful bit of rhetorical revisionism: so slick that I wonder if it was even a conscious act on Ramesh’s part.

But then, one should never credit the author of a book entitled The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life with too much of a gift for subtlety and evenhandedness.

Update: I think I’m being a bit charitable by saying that Ramesh “responded” to my post, by which I mean that he links to it, but offers only another re-interpretive sidetrack in defense of himself (at least this time he actually mentions the key phrase, even if he basically still ignores any discussion of its meaning). Unfortunately, “done what they could” is simply not a description particularly consistent with the idea that pro-ESCR folks were making a “simple error” or otherwise mistaken. “Done what they could to minimize” implies active, thoughtful subterfuge and spin. Perhaps Ramesh sincerely misspoke, but he certainly doesn’t seem inclined to consider even that possibility, does he?

What’s truly bizarre here is that Ramesh has had little hesitation asserting in various other places that defenders of ESCR, including Kevin Drum specifically! are playing games of dishonest spin and hiding the truth about adult stem cells. Why so shy about having the accusation highlighted in this case?

Extra Double Update: Yet another Corner blogger, David Freddoso, weighs in. Let me get this straight: he’s defending the integrity of Ponnuru by arguing that Ponnuru didn’t say what it really, really sounds like he said… but that what he didn’t say is totally a good point that he’s entitled to make. I may not have the necessary “reading skills” here, so I’m just asking for clarification to make sure I’m getting it.

To make myself clear, I don’t think Freddoso is off-base at all in highlighting the deceptive language and sketchy science that some embryonic stem cell research advocates and politicians have used. Heck, I just posted about same sort of thing going on with whether or not the pill kills. I was just in this case amazed to see Ponnuru take such elaborate offense that anyone would read his comment in a way utterly consistent with both his literal words and many previous opinions on his opponents’ integrity, as well as noting with amusement his choice of what words to leave out in his interpretive defense.

And of course, I don’t agree that the use of deception is weighted to one side. For instance, a certain Ramesh Ponnuru has long and unapologetically played the exact same sort of spin game with the difference between what “cloning” technically encompasses, and what it implies to the general public (i.e. The Island and The Boys From Brazil). And, of course, I think the entire “embryos are just human beings at a certain stage in their life” argument is just one long exercise in equivocation.

But that’s an argument for another day… how’s this Friday shaping up for ya, guys?

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4 Responses to Stem Cell Chicanery: Ramesh Ponnuru quotes himself out of context

  1. Bradford Short says:

    I *know* that I’d be being too charitable to call your post here anything other than slander, since you imply that Ramesh Ponnuru is a “creationist” at least as much as he implied bad faith on the part of pro-cloning and pro-ESCR pundits to yesterday’s news. For the record, and people can run google searches on the Corner to test this (to help you all looking, it was during Derbyshire’s attack on Gertrude Himmelfarb a couple of years back for being a “dishonest”, “Straussian” proponent of Intelligent Design; I won’t in any way defend Derbyshire’s slander of Himmelfarb, I’m simply pointing out that Ramesh’s exonerating post came in reaction to that event in, shall we say, “Corner History”), Ramesh has implied in comments on the Corner in response to John Derbyshire that he didn’t even believe Intelligent Design ideas were science, which itself is not the same as denying creationism, since many ID’ers believe the world is billions of years old, and no normal person would call such persons “creationists.” To be blunt, everyone who reads Ramesh Ponnuru knows that he neither believes that I.D. should be taught in High School as science (or has at least implied as much), nor is he a creationist. You might want to run a google search the next time before you level your slur.

    But “chicanery” seems to be what you specialize in sir, so I guess you’re just par for the course.

    As to whether Ramesh is being disingenuous, in that response post you cite he also says that continued pro-ESCR and pro-cloning opposition to anti-ESCR and anti-cloning policies could come from not only those acting out of simple error, but also those acting out of “having invested so heavily in the notions that embryo-destructive research was the way forward, that methods of research touted by their opponents were blind alleys”. Such people, while perhaps not being “dishonest spinners” are also worse than those guilty of “simple error”. Normal English, I’d say, implies that they are in an in between category. Indeed, his more harsh language in the first post could be referring to just that, the “heavily invested” people, and it would be *you* who’d be guilty of the “chicanery” in leaving the “heavily invested” line out of this particular post that I am responding to now. Par for the course for Ramesh’s nasty leftist detractors once again.

    As for your offense taken at the title of “Party of Death”, my response is more simple: grow up and stop whinning. If you people want to call writers like Ramesh and myself theocrats and creationists all the time, be prepared to have some rough language thrown back at you.

  2. Bradford Short says:

    And one last final thing, Party of Death most certainly says that “cloning” for Ramesh means merely creating the embryo, not the whole baby as in the anti-cloning movies. He played no spin game on that at al in POD, and it is dishonest for you to say otherwise.

  3. Bad says:

    Whatever he says in his book, during his blogging of the 2006 elections, he most certainly was quite coy about the definition of the term: I even corresponded with him briefly about it, and his response to what I saw as hypocrisy (he was complaining at the time that it was dishonest to say that “X opposes stem cell research,” which is sort of a gray area, imho, since most people know that it’s embryos which are being talked about in those cases) was basically a shrug. And in any case, I don’t think your summary of the book is quite accurate anyway: cloning includes ALL of those things. The point is that, just like not all stem cell research is the embryonic kind (even though that’s what most ordinary people think of when they hear the word and someone claiming that their opponent opposes it), not all cloning is what most ordinary people think of when they hear the word.

    If I implied that Ramesh was a creationist, I apologize: he’s not to my knowledge, and I never had reason to think that he is. If you followed this blog, you’d note that creationism and quote mining are a pretty common subject, and my comment was talking off of that. But if you are just coming here for this post, I can see how you might get that impression. (See? It’s not hard to be charitable to your readers!) However, note that in my sentence, while I do mention the word creationist, I then say “someone,” which is clearly starting a different subject. If I wanted to imply that he was a creationist, I could have just said “I’m used to creationists, blah blah blah, but this is ridiculous!” (drum hit)

    As to your parsing of Ramesh’s second clause, I actually considered your line of argument briefly, but discarded it when I realized that it was basically just another restatement of people being mistaken or, at worst, self-deluded: that’s why I said “otherwise mistaken,” in fact. That’s still not the same thing as “doing what they could,” which implies coy knowledge.

    Besides, what the heck would be the point of me leaving out what would, under YOUR interpretation, be him basically admitting to the harsher implication he had been denying? Again, I actually DID consider this: that it might support Drum’s point… but I decided that it doesn’t: that it was just another gentlemanly description.

    I’m not quite sure I see how you’ve made sense of a supposed conspiracy to weaken my own evil slander campaign. That one needs a bit more thinking through on your part, imho.

  4. [...] Cells: Lairs to the Left of Me, Hypocrites to the Right… As I noted earlier, Corner-blogger David Freddoso is quite right to call out the dishonesty on the pro-ESCR side. I [...]

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