Scientists with clay feet

hwang woo sukEmbryonic stem cell research pioneer Hwang Woo-suk had a really bad day yesterday. Dr. Hwang is the cloning superstar who was riding the express train to the Nobel Prize until a few weeks ago. He received Time magazine’s invention of the year award for his cloned puppy and earlier this month he won Scientific American‘s researcher of the year award.

A bit of background: In early 2004, Hwang produced the world’s first human embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. He faced a huge uproar a few weeks ago over the fact his research eggs were supplied by his subordinates — a no-no in the medical community because of the appearance or reality of coercion. And then there were the confirmed rumors that still other women were paid for their ova.

In May, Hwang’s team published proof it developed the world’s first human embryonic stem cells tailored to match the DNA of individuals. Yesterday, after weeks of heavy speculation, the news came out that the study was fraudulent.

In Korea, where Hwang is a national hero, the populace is dumbfounded. The country has been beating the U.S. in the global embryonic stem cell war based almost completely on the work of Dr. Hwang and his team, so the Korean press has been all over the story. Last week, a story on Catholic, Protestant, Confucian and Buddhist views toward embryonic stem cell research appeared in the Korea Times:

For the religious groups, the key question seems to be whether or not to consider embryonic stem cells, upon which Hwang’s cloning experiments are based, as a living entities. The three main religions that oppose Hwang’s research define stem cells as living creatures and therefore the destruction of stem cells for scientific purposes could be equivalent to murder. However, they are also in the position of having to persuade the public, the majority of whom applaud Hwang’s landmark research exploits.

One thing to watch for in coverage of this contentious topic is how some reporters covering stem cell research often fail to distinguish between stem cell research in general and embryonic stem cell research. In doing so, they incorrectly give the appearance that those who oppose research that requires the destruction of human embryos oppose the larger field. Here’s Reuters:

Hwang may brief reporters separately later on the case, which has wide ramifications for the already controversial field of stem-cell research. If the research proves to be flawed or false it would rank as one of the biggest science fraud cases in years.

“I am sure anti stem-cell activists will use this to show that there are problems with this science and that it is not effectively regulated,” said David Winickoff, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of California, Berkeley, by telephone.

John Rennie over at Scientific American gives a full rundown of the scandal and provides analysis:
better muppet

Frankly, I’ve been surprised that some of the usually vociferous opponents of embryonic stem cell research haven’t been making more of a fuss about the Hwang affair all along. I kept waiting to hear them argue that the ethical laxity of the Korean lab only proved that the moral of judgment of stem cell researchers couldn’t be trusted–that no matter what promises the scientists made to uphold human dignity in their work, they would surely start committing atrocities once they were allowed to operate freely.

Maybe they’re not making more of a fuss in the stories because no one is even talking to them. Or at least that’s the case with Reuters and BBC and ABC and Time. Perhaps someone should ask opponents of embryonic stem cell research what they think of these developments.

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The missing abortion debate

babyThe European papers are all over this study from Oslo University on the trauma abortion can cause, which appears to be greater than the trauma caused by a miscarriage. The interesting thing here is that while European journalists jump all over this story, there is relatively little noise over in the United States. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Here is London’s The Daily Mail‘s take on the subject:

Women who have an abortion can suffer mental distress, anxiety, guilt and shame even five years afterwards and sometimes even longer, research has shown.

The study compared a group of 40 women who suffered a miscarriage with 80 women who chose to have an abortion, questioning them 10 days, six months, two years and five years after the event.

The team from Oslo University, found that women who had a miscarriage suffered more mental distress up to six months after losing their baby compared with those who had an abortion.

There is a certain Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade that prevents any true debate in the United States on abortion. It’s perceived as a settled issue so journalists have little need to explore the deeply compelling story that is the actual act of an abortion rather than the horse race that is Supreme Court nominations.

It’s considered a right as basic as voting, which keeps it out of the political arena and thus largely the journalistic arena. There are exceptions of course, graphically seen here in the Los Angeles Times (for more commentary spurred on by that article, click here and here).

As the Economist wrote so eloquently this week (no link, sorry folks, I read this one while at the dentist and it’s blocked on their Web site), abortion in the United States remains a hot button issue precisely because there is no true debate on the issue. The issue of abortion is largely settled throughout most of the world (in favor with some restrictions), but in the U.S., the debate rages onward and has started to negatively impact our judicial system and take time away from other much more pressing issues that must be debated such as terrorism and a flu pandemic. And all because a few judges believed that the right to an abortion was akin to the right to vote. Clearly, the issue is not that simple.

Fox News’ Salynn Boyles seems to be the only American journalist to have jumped on this story, and she does so in great detail. The Australian covered the story as did the Hindustan Times. The BBC has an article on this, as does the Telegraph and The Independent. I know this story is only a day or so old, so it might take time for it to catch on in the U.S.

For reporters who coverage laps into this area of health and abortion issues, don’t let a legal decision stop you from covering this story. This Web site might be a good place to start as might the local church or abortion clinic. One way or another, there’s a story to be told and one way or another, the truth will get out. The question is whether American journalists have it in them to cover the story.

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On the virtue of skepticism

Oh to be a reporter in Kansas these days. In early November, the Board of Education there modified state science standards to include critiques of evolutionary theory. Later in the month, a controversial Kansas University professor — the chair of the religious studies department, no less — announced he would offer a class that attacked intelligent design theory.

Only problem is, he forgot to keep a lid on his motivations for the class. Here’s how Lawrence Journal-World’s Sophia Maines covered it:

In a recent message on a Yahoo listserv — a venue where groups of people post questions and comments on a particular topic — Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s department of religious studies, described his upcoming course “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies.”

“The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology,’” Mirecki wrote.

He signed the note “Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P.”

Whoopsie! So much for encouraging intellectual inquiry and civil discussion. Ms. Maines’ piece is good but I wonder why she didn’t tell readers the name of the list-serv: Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas. Nevertheless, the Lawrence Journal-World did do a great job of posting page after page of Mirecki’s comments(.pdf) on their website for readers to evaluate.

In any case, tons of people flipped out about the comments. He apologized, his critics weren’t appeased and the university was forced to cancel the class last Thursday. And that was the end of the firestorm . . . until today. Lawrence-area media are giving heavy coverage to the latest development: Mirecki said he was driving on a rural road yesterday morning, thinking, and ended up getting beaten up by . . . Creationists. He drove himself to the hospital and reported the attack to police.

Eric Weslander, also of the Journal-World, covered Mirecki’s account but also managed to introduce another possible angle:

One of Mirecki’s most vocal critics, conservative activist John Altevogt, said he couldn’t imagine anyone he knows doing such a thing.

“This should be investigated thoroughly, and whoever did this should be punished to the full extent of the law. You don’t beat people for either their faith or their lack thereof,” he said.

But Altevogt said he was skeptical about whether Mirecki’s report was legitimate.

“He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left,” Altevogt said. “The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor.”

When told that some people were questioning the truth of his report, Mirecki fired back.

“The right wing wants blood, period. They’re not going to stop until they see blood. They’re not into anything else,” he said. “Whatever I do, whatever I say, they don’t believe anything because that’s the way they are… I know what happened. I got the hell beat out of me. They can say what they want.”

Far too many stories about politically-motivated attacks on professors make the news twice: first when the attack occurs and later when the attack is revealed to have been self-perpetrated. While a roving band of intelligent designers might very well have attacked Mirecki, Weslander’s approach of gently including a bit of skepticism in the story is a great use of inches.

It’s also a good reminder for reporters to question motivations on all stories. When I was studying economics, the idea that humans have incentives for just about everything was pounded into us, and I’m glad. Reporters should be healthily skeptical and consider the motivations of everyone they cover.

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Clearly we were Left Behind

HomeAloneThe debate over whether the Bible is an authentic historical record has been going on for more than 200 years. And historians are not the primary people affected by debate, it’s archaeologists. Archaeology relying on the Bible has become a way to explore the Old Testament and its discoveries can have profound implications in world politics.

The significance of this A1 story in Friday’s Washington Post cannot be underestimated. Overall, it is a well-researched, thorough and relatively balanced article that I enjoyed reading. Here’s the gist:

She believes she has found the palace of King David, the poet-warrior who the Bible says consolidated the ancient Jewish kingdom around the 10th century B.C. and expanded its borders to encompass the Land of Israel. Others are doubtful.

“There is sometimes a reality, a very precise reality, though maybe not all true, described in the Bible,” Mazar said. “This is giving the Bible’s version a chance.”

Mazar’s find is emerging at the nexus of history, religion and politics, volatile forces that have guided building, biblical scholarship and war in this city for millennia. Even before the findings have been assembled in a scientific paper, the discovery is prompting new thinking about when Jerusalem rose to prominence, the nature of the early Jewish kingdom, and whether the Bible can be used as a reliable map to archaeological discovery.

This is a fascinating discovery, a solid article and a reporter knowledgeable of the facts, willing to dig (no pun intended) for precise insights, except for this one paragraph that seems to have a tense confused:

Finkelstein, who is in charge of the excavation in northern Israel where the Bible says the battle of Armageddon took place, visited Mazar’s dig a few months ago. The 56-year-old scholar, tall and voluble with a salt-and-pepper beard, has often argued with colleagues whose reliance on the Bible he finds misguided.

Am I missing something here? A co-worker of mine actually pointed this out to me Friday morning at work while reading it on my recommendation after I had skimmed it over while eating my breakfast. We were both quite confused.

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Fish StanleyThe teaser copy atop the December issue of Harper’s is simple — “Stanley Fish on Intelligent Design.” What fan of Stanley Fish or the Intelligent Design debate wouldn’t want to read that creative pairing of author and subject?

Fish begins with an unpredictable angle by accusing I.D. proponents of misappropriating the academic style of Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago:

What the Christian Right took from him (without acknowledgment) was the idea that college instructors should “teach the conflicts” around academic issues so that students will learn that knowledge is neither inertly given nor merely a matter of personal opinion but is established in the crucible of controversy.

Then he shifts into overstating what I.D. proponents seek:

What is ironic is that although Graff made his case for teaching the controversies in a book entitled Beyond the Culture Wars, the culture wars have now appropriated his thesis and made it into a weapon. In the Intelligent Design army, from Bush on down to every foot soldier, “teach the controversy” is the battle cry.

It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design — away from the question, “Why should it be taught in a biology class?” — and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we’re right, the other guys are wrong, and here are the scientific reasons why, Intelligent Design polemicists say that every idea should at least get a hearing; that unpopular or minority views should always be represented; that questions of right and wrong should be left open; that what currently counts as knowledge should always be suspect, because it will typically reflect the interests and preferences of those in power.

By the end of his brief essay, Fish argues that I.D. proponents are guilty of — oh, he knows how to hit where it hurts — relativism:

In the guise of upping the stakes, Intelligent Designers lower them, moving immediately to a perspective so broad and inclusive that all claims are valued not because they have proven out in the contest of ideas but simply because they are claims. When any claim has a right to be heard and taught just because it is one, judgment falls by the wayside and is replaced by the imperative to let a hundred (or a million) flowers bloom.

There’s a word for this, and it’s relativism. Polemicists on the right regularly lambaste intellectuals on the left for promoting relativism and its attendant bad practices — relaxing or abandoning standards, opening the curriculum to any idea with a constituency attached to it, dismissing received wisdom by impugning the motives of those who have established it; disregarding inconvenient evidence and replacing it with grand theories supported by nothing but the partisan beliefs and desires of the theorizers. Whether or not this has ever been true of the right’s targets, it is now demonstrably true of the right itself, whose members now recite the mantras of “teach the controversy” or “keep the debate open” whenever they find it convenient.

I’ve been unable to find any response to Fish’s essay on the Discovery Institute’s website, or on Evolution News and Views, its blog that critiques media coverage of evolution debates.

Considering that Fish directly takes on Philip Johnson, and knowing how Johnson loves a good argument, the response should be worth the wait.

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Abortion, up close and personal

baby2Sometimes a story full of quotes and graphic descriptions can get to the heart of an issue better than a story heavy in theory and complex details. A person can know all the facts and the statistics about abortion, but can that person really know what an abortion is?

The Los Angeles Times (yes again) ran a must-read piece Tuesday that begs for an award of some kind. The religious language is amazing and Stephanie Simon really digs at the multifaceted issues of actually having an abortion. The article brings the reader into the abortion room and allows them to examine the many opinions of females before and after they have an abortion. To say the least, it’s all quite startling to read:

His Fayetteville Women’s Clinic occupies a once-elegant home dating to the 1940s; the first-floor surgery looks like it was a parlor. Thick blue curtains block the windows and paintings of butterflies and flowers hang on the walls. The radio is tuned to an easy-listening station.

An 18-year-old with braces on her teeth is on the operating table, her head on a plaid pillow, her feet up in stirrups, her arms strapped down at her sides. A pink blanket is draped over her stomach. She’s 13 weeks pregnant, at the very end of the first trimester. She hasn’t told her parents.

A nurse has already given her a local anesthetic, Valium and a drug to dilate her cervix; Harrison prepares to inject Versed, a sedative, in her intravenous line. The drug will wipe out her memory of everything that happens during the 20 minutes she’s in the operating room. It’s so effective that patients who return for a follow-up exam often don’t recognize Harrison.

The article focuses on a Dr. William F. Harrison, a self-proclaimed abortionist who says he has terminated at least 20,000 pregnancies. Harrison’s clinic has been picketed and firebombed, he routinely receives death threats and protesters have marched outside his home. Through all this he has become essentially an advocate for abortion and admits that he is “destroying life.”

But he also feels he’s giving life: He calls his patients “born again.”

Stephanie Simon has put the reality of abortion before us all to read about and to come to our own conclusions. Throughout the piece, shocking examples of excuses for an abortion (“A high school volleyball player says she doesn’t want to give up her body for nine months.”), give way to the less shocking (Kim, a single mother of three, says she couldn’t bear to give away a child and have to wonder every day if he were loved).

But a majority of the explanations for the abortions are of the shocking nature:

His first patient of the day, Sarah, 23, says it never occurred to her to use birth control, though she has been sexually active for six years. When she became pregnant this fall, Sarah, who works in real estate, was in the midst of planning her wedding. “I don’t think my dress would have fit with a baby in there,” she says.

The last patient of the day, a 32-year-old college student named Stephanie, has had four abortions in the last 12 years. She keeps forgetting to take her birth control pills. Abortion “is a bummer,” she says, “but no big stress.”

Journalists are starting to see the evil side of abortion and they will begin to tell the story. One hopes that reporters will also be able to grasp the political intricacies of an overturned Roe v. Wade.

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Letting Big Ben speak for himself

DarwinFishDuring all of my West Coast travels last week there was one URL that I kept watching for, a link that would let us read what Pope Benedict XVI had actually said in his latest remarks on creation and a Creator.

I didn’t want to comment on this issue until there was some kind of official translation available. Now we have it (hat tip, of course, to the omnipresent Amy Welborn). Rare is the pope who speaks in sound bites, and reporters often, frankly, get the quotes wrong or out of context. When in doubt, it’s best to let the pope speak for himself.

Frankly, I was surprised at how little MSM coverage this story received. The story is old, now, but here is the start of the basic Associated Press report to remind you:

Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the evolution debate in the United States, saying the universe was made by an “intelligent project” and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order. …

He quoted St. Basil the Great, a fourth century saint, as saying some people, “fooled by the atheism that they carry inside of them, imagine a universe free of direction and order, as if at the mercy of chance.”

“How many of these people are there today? These people, fooled by atheism, believe and try to demonstrate that it’s scientific to think that everything is free of direction and order,” he said. “With the sacred Scripture, the Lord awakens the reason that sleeps and tells us: In the beginning, there was the creative word. In the beginning, the creative word — this word that created everything and created this intelligent project that is the cosmos — is also love.”

For another take on this story, click here for the Religion News Service report that appeared at Beliefnet.

In terms of what the pope said, two points must be made.

First of all, he places a heavy emphasis on the awesome words at the start of the Gospel of John, a major source of unity for Christians, rather than the creation accounts in Genesis, which often cause division. In doing so, he is following the strategy of the Intelligent Design camp, not the traditional creationist argument. In the beginning was the Word. Words are intelligent and contain information.

Second, if must be noted that — more than any other point — Benedict XVI is arguing against the philosophy of Darwinism, with its emphasis on a random, unguided and impersonal process of creation, rather than against the idea of common descent and slow change over time. In doing so, he is being consistent with the often quoted and misquoted remarks of the late Pope John Paul II. For more information on that, click here and then here.

It is also clear that — in Catholic higher education and, yes, even inside the Vatican — the pope’s remarks are setting teeth on edge. Just about the only thing Big Ben hasn’t done is openly do what John Paul II did when he talked about plural “theories of evolution” and then started describing which parts of the Darwinian canon fit with traditional Christian faith and which parts do not. It would really help if journalists had to cover a detailed discussion of the merits of microevolution (accepted by virtually everyone involved in this story) and the fierce debates about the evidence for macroevolution (ah, there’s the rub).

truth eats darwinMeanwhile, Catholics will argue about this from now until doomsday.

Check out this latest blast against the Intelligent Design camp — against the pope, as well? — from the “chief astronomer” of the Vatican.

You can also follow this link to a long thread at Welborn’s open book blog, with Catholics on all sides jumping into the debate. Welborn herself opens things up with a calm post that begins with this interesting thought:

I am far less interested in Intelligent Design than I am in simply asking questions about evolutionary theory. It seems to me one could be done with out the other, and, in fact, need to be. There is not one aspect of science which should go unquestioned, even by members of the unwashed such as me, and I am a little weary of questions about evolution — about evidence, in particular — being brushed off as the wishful thinking of creationists. They’re not.

It would be quite interesting for cultural permission to be given, as it were, for this particular dogma to be held up to scrutiny and for an honest discussion to be had about the explanatory power of evolutionary theory as well as its weaknesses, flaws and gaps — without anyone getting defensive. Impossible, but it’s sort of what I’m looking for.

Amen. What she said.

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A serious look at the Dalai Lama?

dalai lamaI wasn’t sure what to make of the media coverage surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to the nation’s capitol. Here The Washington Post has him speaking on the hot button issue that is science, which from a man in his position as a worldwide religious leader, is not only a great way for the Dalai Lama to break into the headlines, but also an interesting cultural twist. Here’s what he had to say:

His talk focused on how he developed his interest in science as a boy in Tibet, within a closed and isolated society, and on his view that morality and compassion are central to science. He pointed out in his prepared text, for instance, that although the atom bomb was great science, it created great moral problems.

“It is no longer adequate to adopt the view that our responsibility as a society is to simply further scientific knowledge and enhance technological power and that the choice of what to do with this knowledge and power should be left in the hands of the individual,” he said.

“By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call ‘secular ethics’ that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power — principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and nonbelievers, and followers of this religion or that religion,” he said.

Here in The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Dalai Lama discussed a “convergence of religion and science” in Palo Alto, Calif. Here’s a snippet:

Instead of a conflict between faith and science, this was a virtual love fest.

William Mobley, director of the Neuroscience Institute, put the conference together because he said both neuroscience and Buddhism strive to alleviate suffering.

“Both pursue knowledge about the brain and mind,” he said. “They just go about it differently. I think we have something to learn from each other.”

The Dalai Lama, one of the most ardent supporters of science among religious leaders, often says that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, then Buddhism must change accordingly.

The mainstream media love this guy. He can speak their language and understands what hot-button issues to steer around and what issues to declare he is firmly for or against. Here’s to the first mainstream journalist who will take a critical look at exactly what the Dalai Lama is teaching.

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