Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Twilight For the Enlightenment, Are You Kidding Me?

Well, I’ve been meaning to do some science blogging, but I haven’t found any inspiring research articles that wouldn’t put my non-scientist readers to sleep. I’ve found a couple articles to be mildly interesting, but nothing spectacular. Let's see. There's Comparison of Fine-Scale Recombination Rates in Humans and Chimpanzees where the authors show that although chimp DNA is 99% identical to human DNA, it is regulated completely differently. Hmmmm...this probably is why we don't look like chimps. Then there was the article Do 15-Month-Old Infants Understand False Belief? Basically this explains that your toddler can swipe your keys, hide them from you, and then giggle because you can't find them.

But I did find an editorial in the April 8th edition of Science worth fisking. It’s been so long since I’ve fisked an article, so why not start with the smarty pants editor-in-chief from Science magazine, Donald Kennedy. It was so amusing reading the editorials in Science and Nature during this past election season as the editors attempted to appear like Serious Objective Scientists, interested only in TRUTH not in partisan politics. But sometimes I wonder if the editors got their talking points from one of the political parties--I’ll let you guess which one and their name doesn’t start with an R.

I was especially annoyed to read an editorial in Nature last year that basically declared that any self-respecting scientist had to vote for the candidate that best represented scientists’ interests i.e. unlimited stem cell research, and therefore they must support John Kerry. As if stem cell research is the one and only issue for scientists when they consider who to vote for. Come on, which biotech company specializing in stem cell research is paying you guys? You know, I don’t care if Science and Nature editorializes about politics. It gives me something to rant about, but I don’t like how they pretend to be the spokesman (or is it spokesperson) for all scientists. They do not represent me and many other conservative members of the scientific community—and yes we do exist. I know of one professor at my school that kept a punching dummy head on his desk. During the 2004 election, he taped a picture of John Kerry's face to the front of it. During the confirmation hearing for Condeleeza Rice, he taped a picture of Barbara Boxer's face to it. His office door was also covered with picture of Reagan and the Bushes.

So let’s start with the title: Twilight for the Enlightenment? Talk about hysterical. Oh no! That Chimpy Christian Crusader Cowboy Bushitler ™ has won re-election and the world is doomed to fall back into the dark ages where holes are drilled in people’s skulls to release demons and leeches are the cure for the common cold. Give me a break!

Then he talks about the Enlightenment and how it brought JOY and PEACE and LOVE to the whole world--or not.

For much of their existence over the past two centuries, Europe and the United States have been societies of questioners: nations in which skepticism has been accepted and even welcomed, and where the culture has been characterized by confidence in science and in rational methods of thought. We owe this tradition in part to the birth of the Scottish Enlightenment of the early 18th century, when the practice of executing religious heretics ended, to be gradually replaced by a developing conviction that substituted faith in experiment for reliance on inherited dogma.

That new tradition, prominently represented by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, supplied important roots for the growth of modernity, and it has served U.S. society well, as it has Europe’s.

I’m a fan of Hume, but he also gave us the Problem of Induction which as my husband translated from philosopherese is correlation is not causation --and everything is correlation. So science isn’t all that in the grand scheme of things. I’m especially annoyed when some correlational study comes out the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) that says this, that and the other is linked to increased risk of cancer or whatever and every media outlet declares that it’s a scientific fact that eating too many Twinkies will result in a HORRIBLE, SLOW DEATH. The CDC just got busted this year for exaggerating the figures of individuals who die of causes related to obesity . So much for the obesity epidemic.

The results of serious, careful experimentation and analysis became a standard for the entry of a discovery or theory into the common culture of citizens and the policies of their governments. Thus, scientific determinations of the age of Earth and the theories of gravity, biological evolution, and the conservation of matter and energy became meaningful scientific anchors of our common understanding.

In the United States, that understanding is now undergoing some dissolution, as
some school boards eliminate the teaching of evolution or require that religious versions of creation be represented as “scientific” alternatives. “Intelligent design,” a recent replacement for straight-up creationism, essentially asserts that a sufficient quantity of complexity and beauty is by itself evidence of divine origin—a retrogression to the pre-Darwinian zoologist William Paley, who saw in the elegant construction of a beetle’s antenna the work of a Creator.

Well, I think he’s being way too alarmist about those fundy Christians taking over our schools and banning all science. I reviewed the cases he’s referring to here, here, here, and
, and I think he’s exaggerating a bit. In Kansas, teaching evolution wasn’t eliminated, they just said it was no longer part of the required science curriculum and teachers could choose to teach it or not. A couple of states wanted to put little sticker that said evolution is a theory not a fact, and he gets all hot and bothered about it. The truth is, evolution IS a theory (a pretty good one so far) and what we claim to know as facts are subject to revision as our knowledge progresses. I think students should be taught evolution, but they should also be able to ask questions about it and see if there are any holes in it.

I personally don’t have a problem with most of evolution. But there are some aspects of it that I think are still pretty foggy e.g. evolution of the first living cell. I don’t really believe that men and apes evolved from a common ancestor either, but I think it’s a pretty good interpretation of the data thus far.

In 1998, I helped the National Academies produce a book entitled Teaching About
Evolution and the Nature of Science. At the press conference announcing its publication, I was asked if I knew that most U.S. citizens did not believe that humans descended from other forms. I said I did, but expressed a hope that things might change.

Well, I hate to tell you this buddy, but until belief in God is totally eliminated from human society, there will always be people that believe that we are more than mere animals, that there is a spark of the divine in us.

Well, things changed in the wrong direction: Alternatives to the teaching of biological evolution are now being debated in no fewer than 40 states. Worse, evolution is not the only science under such challenge. In several school districts, geology materials are being rewritten because their dates for Earth’s age are inconsistent with scripture (too old).

What happened to the idea that the debate of ideas is a good thing in a republic? Is science so infallible that there is no room for debate? I don’t see any harm in the public debating the teaching of evolution. If a state decides to phase it out, and the scores on the science portions of standardized tests will drop, and they’ll have to reconsider their decisions. I think evolution should be taught to all students in their high school biology classes, just one chapter or week of classes if time permits. But students that are taught evolution don’t necessary have to believe it, just know what it is. I made it through grad school just find without being tested on evolution or referring to it in my research. Evolution is a small , but important part of biology. I tend to think evolutionary biologists and other scientists tend to overexaggerate its importance.

For example, Donald hopes that most U.S. citizens will someday believe that humans and chimps evolved from a common ancestor. I think most Americans know about evolution, but don’t buy into all of it. We’re not necessarily a 3rd world backwater like say Sudan because of it, however. The U.S. is still leading the world in R & D in spite of (some might say because of) the high percentage of the population that believes in God.

Meanwhile, President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief policies recommend
“evidence-based” risk-reduction strategies: abstinence for youth, fidelity for married couples, and condoms recommended only for infected or high-risk individuals, such as sex workers. Failure rates for condoms are commonly quoted, apparently to discourage their use by young people for risk prevention. Mysteriously, the policy doesn’t seem able to cite a failure rate for abstinence.

Shocking! Promoting abstinence for the youth, fidelity for married couples, and condoms for high risk individuals is certainly radical! As for citing the failure rate of condoms, I think it would be irresponsible to promote their use as safe-sex and then not tell the failure rate. Condom use is not 100% foolproof, while abstinence (if maintained) is.

Finally, certain kinds of science are now proscribed on what amount to religious grounds. Stem cell research is said by its opponents to pose a “moral dilemma.” Yet this well-advertised dilemma does not arise from a confrontation between science and ethical universals. Instead, the objections arise from a particular belief about what constitutes a human life: a belief held by certain religions but not by others.

And what are these ethical universals, pray tell? Would these be the same ethical universals espoused by people like Peter Singer who believes parents should be allowed to kill their newborn children if they wish? I think Donald’s also picking on Catholics here since they believe that human life begins at conception. But other people besides Catholics have problems with using human embryos for stem cell research. A friend of mine who is Hindu and also has an M.D. and Ph.D. is uncomfortable with the idea of destroying human embryos for research. Hindus have a profound respect for life—all forms of life—since many of them are vegetarians. I think it would be ok if embryos left over from in vitro fertilization treatments were used for stem cells, but only if it was ok with the “parents.” But I don't think human embryos should be produced by cloning for stem cell production. It would be too close to A Brave New World scenario with a subclass of humans (or potential humans) used for the benefit of the superior class.

Some researchers, eager to resolve the problem, seek to derive stem cells by techniques that might finesse the controversy. But the claim that the stem cell “dilemma” rests on universal values is a false claim, and for society to accept it to obtain transitory political relief would bring church
and state another step closer.

I see, Donald. Why should scientists attempt to make the American taxpayer feel better about how their tax dollars are being spent on stem cell research? Scientists should just be able to do whatever they want with taxpayer money since they are so much smarter than the average taxpayer. I’m sorry, but if the American public is footing the bill, we should have a say in what is ethical and what is not as far as research goes. There has to be some kind of acocuntability if public money is used. Private funds are another matter and stem cell research is not restricted in the private sector. Also, California managed to convince its citizens that it was worthwhile to fund stem cell research with state money through a referendum. This is a republic after all, not like Plato’s republic where the guardians (scientists) decide what is in the best interests of everyone else.

The present wave of evangelical Christianity, uniquely American in its level of participation, would be nothing to worry about were it a matter restricted to individual conviction and to the expressions of groups gathering to worship. It’s all right that in the best-selling novels about the “rapture,” the true believers ascend and the rest of us perish painfully. But U.S. society is now experiencing a convergence between religious conviction and partisan loyalty, readily detectable in the statistics of the 2004 election. Some of us who worry about the separation of church and state will accept tablets that display the Ten Commandments on state premises, because they fail to cross a threshold of urgency.

But when the religious/political convergence leads to managing the nation’s research agenda, its foreign assistance programs, or the high-school curriculum, that marks a really important change in our national life.

Translation: To all you religious types, go ahead with your primitive God worship, but when it comes to politics and science policy, just shut up and let us intellectuals run the show. Oh, and I hope you don’t mind if we raise your taxes a bit to fund all our dream projects. Yep, the defeat of that towering intellect John Kerry was all due to those evangelicals. Never mind that Kerry couldn’t win over those of us in the middle because of his weak positions on terrorism, and his smarmy insincerity (not to mention his limp-wristed salute at the Democratic convention--ugh).

Twilight for the Enlightenment? Not yet. But as its beneficiaries, we should also be its stewards.

Well, I'm glad to hear that not all is lost. Just get rid of the influence of those pesky religious types and everything will be hunky-dory. I think Donald fails to realize that the results of the last two elections and the school curriculum fights are part of a backlash. The average American is sick of being pushed around by anti-religion groups and ivory tower intellectuals, and is fighting back. There will have to be some compromises made. If that means that in some states intelligent design is taught along with evolution, then so what? If the evidence for evolution is so strong, then it should be able to stand on its on. Let the kids decide for themselves. Let the American public decide where their tax dollars should go.

No comments: