Saturday, March 28, 2009

Don't Muddle Science for the Sake of Fairness

Americans tend to have an unwavering sense of fairness and balance. It probably stems from the fact that we live in a democracy. But some controversies cannot be settled by the democratic process.

If you were seriously ill and you had a choice of listening to a team of doctors recommend your treatment or a group of lay people who were generally intelligent but never attended medical school, you would most likely listen to the doctors. You probably wouldn’t decide on a middle-of-the-road treatment based just as much on the recommendations of the lay people as on the doctors.

Similarly, if you were investing your life savings into stocks and bonds, you would probably pay much more attention to the recommendations of financial experts than to a group of your buddies. There is far too much at risk to allow your sense of fairness to influence you to put a lot of faith in the amateurs.

The same reasoning ought to hold for what kind of information gets put into school textbooks. And typically, it does. Renowned authors and language experts tend to influence what goes into textbooks on literature, not those seeking to have their first manuscript published. The collective opinions of historians influence the content of history books; the anecdotes of your great-grandmother were probably not considered.

But in science it’s different. State legislatures and school boards across the country have continued to weigh the opinions of creationists when deciding what to include in state science standards. In Texas this past week, the state school board passed a watered-down version of a proposed plan that would make educators teach the perceived weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

The language in the new Texas science standards says teachers must “critique scientific explanations” in all theories. The board voted against the language proposed by one of its members that would have forced teachers to examine the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of the principles of evolution.

In a very large group it is almost impossible to have 100 percent agreement on anything. But less that one-half of one percent of all biologists in the world question the theory of evolution. It is universally accepted as true by nearly all scientists. And in all developed nations except the United States, the general population doesn’t question the theory either. Even the majority of all religious denominations is fine with the theory of evolution and they have no problem with it being included in science textbooks as the best explanation of the diversity of life on Earth.

But religious fundamentalists are vocal and intransigent. They are the ones who hold the microphone. They are the ones who, by their doggedness, sway public opinion. And when they say their non-scientific view of creation should be included in the science classroom, just to be fair, the public and the politicians tend to listen.

Science is self-correcting. There can be no massive world-wide conspiracy of scientists with a goal of quashing conservative Christianity. On the contrary, when a new theory is proposed and published in peer-reviewed science journals, the first thing that happens in every case is that other scientists try to dismantle it. It’s a competitive business in a sense. But, in the end, if the other scientists examining the same evidence come up with the same conclusion, then eventually the proposed theory is accepted.

Once a theory is accepted as true, it can be used to make predictions about the natural world. If those predictions are shown to be true, the theory is strengthened. The theory of evolution has been tested and retested for 150 years. It has made numerous predictions about genetics, DNA, and the fossil record. Every single prediction made by the theory of evolution that has been tested has been shown to be accurate. There is not a shred of scientific evidence that runs contrary to the theory. And yet, fundamentalist Christians still want to include their own version of science in the classroom.

But intelligent design, which is just another version of creationism, is not science and is not supported by scientists. No valid hypotheses of intelligent design have ever appeared in a peer-reviewed journal of science. That’s because it is not science. It doesn’t follow scientific rules and principles. So why should it appear in a high school science textbook?

It might seem fair and balanced to include both sides of the argument in a state’s science standards. But that would be exactly analogous to equating the opinions of your bar buddies with those of a team of doctors when deciding how to treat a serious illness. It doesn’t make any sense to do that, and it doesn’t make any sense for school boards and state legislatures to force teachers to treat the opinion of conservative Christians, some of whom probably didn’t even pass science in high school, with the conclusion of virtually every science professional in the world.

When the Kansas school board did that, most of its members were voted out of office the next year. When the Dover, Pa school board did that, they were all voted out of office and rebuked by a federal judge. The same fate should befall every political body who insists on putting the pseudoscientific religious views of the vocal proselytizers above the evidence-based opinions of science experts.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How did We Make it in the Good Old Days?

I might be a little weird, but sometimes I like to imagine a former version of myself, or perhaps someone else from an earlier time, transported into the present day. My former self, or time-traveling companion, would be in awe of the technological goodies that we all take for granted today that didn’t exist in the 1960s.

Then I wonder what I would think if I were suddenly transported 50 years into the future. What kind of techno-wizardry will exist five decades hence that I cannot possibly imagine today?

But it’s not all about technology, I occasionally wax nostalgic to the times when I was a kid or maybe a teenager and compare the world back then with the world now. Some things were better then. Mostly, I’m glad to be alive in the modern era.

My first real job was as a bagger at a local grocery store. I remember the price of bread was 25 cents then. A double bag of potato chips was 59 cents. As far as I could remember, it always had been that price.

I was only about 14 years old, but I remember thinking then that some products never changed prices. Yes, there was inflation going on back then, and some prices on grocery items rose almost weekly, but prices on some items seemed remarkably stable. The bread and the potato chips had always been that price. Hostess Twinkies and cup cakes had been 12 cents a pack ever since I was a kid. Candy bars were a nickel for the regular size and a dime for the larger size. And a can of pop from the vending machine was a dime.

A small fountain drink from the local diner was a nickel, as was a small ice cream cone from Dairy Queen. When I bought my first banana split it cost 49 cents. I could barely afford it and I remember not being able to eat it all. And, according to their TV ads, you could buy a hamburger, french fries, and a small soft drink at McDonald’s for 99 cents.

When I started to drive at 16, gas prices were about 32 cents per gallon. They hovered somewhere in the low to mid 30s until the Arab oil embargo in 1973. Then, prices zoomed as high as 85 cents a gallon. Before the embargo, I remember pulling into a Texaco station and seeing the price on the pump at 44 cents a gallon. I pulled right on out. That was far too expensive for a gallon of gasoline.

Although I long for those 1970s gas prices I much prefer the way the telephone company operates today. Back when I was a teenager and into my early adult years, the phone company was a monopoly. When I was in my early 20s I wanted to hook up an answering machine. Yes, they were available back then, for a hefty price. And they used the reel-to-reel tapes to record incoming messages. But the phone company wouldn’t hook them up for you – something about a tariff. So I just wired it into the plug on the wall myself.

It was the same way with telephones. If you didn’t buy them from the phone company, you couldn’t use them. There was no going down to the Wal-Mart (which, by the way, didn’t exist at the time in my state) and purchase a telephone. No, you had to buy your phone directly from Ma Bell.

Going back a little further in time, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember my dad getting our first telephone. It was a rotary dial phone, but the dialer didn’t work. To call my friend, I had to pick up the receiver and wait for the local operator to ask “number please.” Everyone in my town had a three-digit phone number.

But it was only a year or so later that seven-digit dialing went into effect. It still took a while to place a long-distance call, though. There was no direct dialing then, at least not where I lived. To call long distance, you had to dial 0 for the operator and then wait for several minutes while she spoke to several other operators between you and the party you were calling.

It’s so much easier today. We take for granted how easy it is to make a phone call anywhere in the world just be pushing a few buttons on our handset. And a phone call that would have cost five dollars in 1965 is free today if made on a cell phone and only pennies from a landline.

TV shows have changed quite a bit since I was young. All in the Family was the first sitcom to feature the sound of a toilet flushing. Such things were considered taboo back then. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore had to sleep in separate beds, even though their characters were married. And some of the words you could never, ever, say on TV included ass, piss, and boner. Those words are spoken regularly today even on shows produced primarily for family viewing and shown in early prime time. I’m not complaining; it is a better reflection of the real world than the imaginary, squeaky-clean world of 1960s television.

Whether it’s how TV has changed, how making telephone calls is easier and cheaper, or just remembering the cheap prices of my youthful days, it is sometimes fun to pass the time in a regressive mode. I like nostalgia, sometimes because it makes me feel like I’m far better off today and sometimes just because it takes me back to the less hectic days of my youth. Either way, my imagination is just as active today as it was back then. And I am glad about that. But it makes me wonder sometimes how I survived those good old days without my modern gadgets.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Stem Cell Research Gets Boost from Obama

With a few well-placed strokes of his presidential pen, Pres. Barack Obama has been methodically expunging some of his predecessor’s ill-conceived pen strokes. George W. Bush had a self-conceived moral imperative to make sure all citizens of America followed his own narrow view of what is right and wrong. Now, Obama is setting things right.

There are people in this country who believe that abortion is so wrong that the U.S. should not help fund programs in developing nations that allow abortions or even counsel women about them. There are people in this country who believe that the human soul begins as soon as a man’s sperm touches a woman’s egg so that using a tiny ball of cells grown from that union to harvest stem cells is tantamount to murder. And everyone is certainly entitled to his opinion, no matter how archaic and naive it is. But when those opinions, based only on the dogma of a certain few, become the law of the land it becomes a national travesty.

Congress tried to set things right twice, by passing bipartisan legislation that would allow embryonic stem cell funding. Bush, in his usual obstinate and self-important manner, vetoed both attempts. Now it’s up to Obama to fix Bush’s mistakes.

Obama has already overturned two of Bush’s executive orders on abortion issues. Now he is set to fulfill another campaign promise to overturn the former president’s hamstring on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Bush has set this nation eight years behind the rest of the world in medical progress due to his 2001 ban on most federal funding for such research.

Stem cells can be made to grow into any kind of cell. Researchers are working on ways to grow them into pancreatic tissue that produce insulin. Implants of such cells could virtually cure type 1 diabetes. Other disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries could also be helped by growing stem cells into nervous tissue. Although stem cells can be derived from other sources, embryonic stem cells offer the best hope for finding these cures.

The vast majority of Americans, according to most polls, support embryonic stem cell research. But the vocal few who had Bush’s ear during his two terms as president had their way. The sad fact is that their dogmatic opinions may have affected the lives of thousands of other Americans.

Dogma, by definition, is the process of treating a belief or opinion, generally a religious one, as though it were proven fact. The real facts are that nobody really knows at what point a human soul is created. Nobody really knows for sure if humans even have souls. These are religious beliefs that not everyone subscribes to. To make laws based on dogma serves no one except the minority who cling to those beliefs.

If the ultraconservatives in this country find it repulsive that research is being done on embryos, then they can decline any medical care that they may need that is derived from such research. Nobody is forcing them to participate in the process. Their rights have not been abridged. But they must never be allowed again to deprive others from deriving benefits from stem cell research.

The rights of the majority have been trampled by the dogma of the minority for far too long. And now, there is someone in the Oval Office that will not allow antiquated dogma to have a controlling interest in the policies of this country.