Black Shards Press – Electronic Gumbo is Our Specialty

American Science Education, as Seen by a Scientist

15.11.2009 (10:10 pm) – Filed under: Education,Science ::

image Eric Berger’s interview with Michio Kaku is, in his own words, a bit scatter-shot. It’s certainly that, but what Kaku had to say about America’s education system was brutal, fascinating, and dead-on true, particularly as relates to science:

Kaku: We are dumbing down the American high school kid. We have the worst educational system known to science. You can’t create a system worse than our science education system.

Berger: Because we have kids memorize things instead of teaching them to be curious?

Kaku: It’s worse than that. Our kids score below the students of Jordan, a third world country, in science and math. It’s many-fold, the reasons. One is the culture. Look at the Hollywood culture which glamorizes the jock and the cheerleader. But the jocks and the cheerleaders don’t create microchips. They don’t create new transistors. They don’t energize the economy. But that’s what Hollywood gives us, that jocks and cheerleaders rule the world. In high school we have this pyramid with jocks and cheerleaders at the top, and nerds at the bottom. As soon as they graduate the pyramid flips the other way but you’d never know that from Hollywood.

Second, teachers get too comfortable. There’s a lot of deadwood that needs to have a fire lit under their butt, OK? Third, the science curriculum. Humans are all born scientists. Until they get to high school. Then it’s crushed out of them. And you can just see it. Take a typical elementary class, they want to become firemen, doctors, scientists and astronauts. But track that year after year, and by the time you get to 17 or 18 it’s over. Then we wonder why our kids are not scientifically minded.

America produces the greatest financial and legal minds in the world.  Unfortunately, neither of these professions produces anything in the physical sense.  In particular, lawyers are a group of which our country has far too many of.  The abstraction of labor behind layers of technology is a something that has served a segment of our population well in recent decades.  But there is a point beyond which employment cannot be sanitized. 

In order to be consumed, goods still must be produced.  In an increasingly technical marketplace, countries that lead scientifically will ultimately lead economically.  The creation of new electronic technology is more demanding a field than ever.  If American children are not given the educational base they need in order to compete on the battlefield of ideas, economic disappointment is certain to follow.

The Necessity of Mixing God and Science

27.06.2009 (9:26 am) – Filed under: Religion,Science ::

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Lawrence Krauss says that God and Science don’t mix, something that our own Claudia has contended, vociferously at times.  Pursuit of logic is a passion with many scientifically-minded people and the pursuit of logic – and logical explanations – can become the object of single-minded devotion.  In some cases this process leads to great truths and technological advancements; in others, the forest is lost among the trees and the researcher with it.  Whither Krauss?  I’ll not presume to guess but his word choices create distortion more than they reveal truth. 

It is certainly true God and individual scientific experiments do not mix.  The scientific method by definition calls for the isolation of as many variables as possible so that the one(s) under test can be definitively tested and explained.  In an individual test, therefore, there can be no allowance for the divine.  If there is, the experiment is fatally flawed.

Nevertheless, God and science are inexplicably intertwined. 

As a software developer I understand the process of examining a seemingly chaotic circumstance, looking for order and root causes, and defining an explanation for behaviors, both expected and not.  It is a very logical endeavor when all of the facts are known but one also relies heavily on intuition when they are not.  The software test, like the scientific experiment, is imagined by intuition and defined by its absence.  Yet pristine logic at the application layer does not mean that the programmer can ignore the fundamental truths of the operating system and development platform.  They still exist, whether our analysis considers them or not.  True knowledge of the system considers all factors, liked and despised alike.  Truth requires it.

Likewise, science is, when all the ideology, agendas, and personal pride is stripped away, the pursuit to understand the principles that govern the universe God created.  That truth does not diminish scientists or dull the luster of their accomplishments.  Rather it increases them for to learn about the world around us is to know a fraction of the mind of God.

Cold Fusion Coming Closer?

23.03.2009 (6:53 pm) – Filed under: Energy,Science ::

Pamela Mosier-Boss, a U.S. Navy researcher, isn’t willing to climb out on that limb just yet. But she says that her lab has produced “significant” results, including the generation of highly energetic neutrons, an important byproduct of the fusion process.

Other researchers, including Rice University’s Paul Padley are justifiably skeptical – the Pons-Fleischmann debacle was a mere 20 years ago, after all:

“Fusion could produce the effect they see, but there’s no plausible explanation of how fusion could occur in these conditions,” Padley said. “The whole point of fusion is, you’re bringing things of like charge together. As we all know, like things repel, and you have to overcome that repulsion somehow.”

“Nobody in the physics community would believe a discovery without such a quantitative analysis,” he said.

Also worth noting is the fact that Mosier-Boss has collaborated with on at least some of her Navy research, notably this part of this paper in which their work was unrelated to cold fusion.  Still, it wouldn’t be far afield to wonder if there hasn’t been some cross-pollination of ideas at a minimum.

At any rate, Mosier-Boss seems to be playing her cards close to her vest by framing her results modestly and announcing them well at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society where her work will be featured.

Texas Board to Block Teaching Evolution’s Shortcomings

23.01.2009 (1:10 pm) – Filed under: Education,Evolution,Law,Liberalism,Science ::

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Texas State Board of Education has tentatively decided drop its 20-year-old requirement mandating that science teachers address both “strengths and weaknesses” of the scientific theory originated by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, capping a heated debate on the topic. 

In Texas, the theory of evolution now has no faults and teachers who know better have no recource but to bite their tongue in the classroom.  This falsehood rightly incenses many Americans, for a variety of reasons:

“It’s outrageous that our highest elected education officials voted to silence teachers and students in science class,” said Jonathan Saenz, a lobbyist for the Free Market Foundation. “Despite being overwhelmed by e-mails and phone calls to keep strengths and weaknesses, the divided State Board of Education ignored constituents and sided with a small group of activists.

“This decision shows that science has evolved into a political popularity contest. The truth has been expelled from the science classroom.”

Expelled, indeed.  The reasoning from the winning side has but a single, razor-sharp focus – the complete elimination of creationism from the American education system:

Kathy Miller, president of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network, has argued that the word weaknesses “has become a code word in the culture wars to attack evolution and promote creationism.”

Miller is certainly right in what she says.  Evolution’s many weaknesses are exploited in the ongoing battle over what should be taught in America’s schools.  However, what’s not said – ever – is that it was the liberal, evolution-only, there-is-no-God side that started the culture wars in the first place.  Now, after decades of liberal radicalism on the streets and in the courtrooms, the left frequently attempts to take the legal high ground, as Miller does in this case.

Yet the fact is that the theory of evolution is just that.  While that may incense many people on the left and some on the right, the truth is what it is.  Darwin’s idea of radical mutation is far, far from proven and the skeletal record is in many ways just that – skeletal. 

For pro-evolution advocates to say straight-faced that their idea is the complete definition of a natural law is ludicrous as relates to the origins of life on this planet.  Few people question the validity of natural selection to work changes in species over time.  It’s readily observable in experiments with fruit flies, in addition to being intellectually obvious.  But natural selection has nothing to say about where life came from.  Woe to the rare objective scientific researcher who actually cares enough about the truth to consider every possible bit of evidence.  That, you must understand, is not allowed.

Expelled, the movie, is an excellent documentary about the scientific censorship that has taken place in this country over the last 50 years in regard to the research, publication, and teaching of intelligent design.  I highly recommend it.  Save for an unfortunate ramble through the briar patch of Nazism and eugenics, it’s certainly thought provoking and worthy of 90 minutes of your time.  If nothing else, an important take-away is that anti-God political forces are actively limiting scientific research and debate in this country using every means, fair and unfair, available to them. 

That’s unacceptable.  Even if evolutionists turn out to be 100% correct with one of their Darwinistic sub-theories – something that’s highly unlikely – the completely cynical act of using the country’s political and legal processes to stifle scientific research debate and force America’s young people to be educated exclusively in their dogma is anti-America, anti-truth, and anti-rational in the extreme.  Science is about seeking the truth.  But the left seeks to put blinders on all of us, researchers included.

The irony is, of course, that the new radical liberalism is supposed to be all about individual truths, rights, and freedoms.  The truth is that the freedoms the left promises are fantastic chimeras that disappear the moment you use that freedom to disagree with them.

Sadly, the intellectual fascists of the left, who can allow no other views than their own to be put forth, have one another battle in the war for America’s soul.

Real Alternative Energy Coming?

09.11.2008 (9:51 pm) – Filed under: Energy,Science ::

When I first read about Hyperion Power Generation‘s plans to manufacture ~25 MWe, turn-key nuclear power plants I was skeptical, to say the least.  Still am, truthfully.  Now the Guardian says that Hyperion has several confirmed orders for the device.  Could this be a real Middle East Oil Killer?

The Guardian:

The first confirmed order came from TES, a Czech infrastructure company specialising in water plants and power plants. ‘They ordered six units and optioned a further 12. We are very sure of their capability to purchase,’ said Deal. The first one, he said, would be installed in Romania. ‘We now have a six-year waiting list. We are in talks with developers in the Cayman Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.’

One immediately notices that no major industrialized nations are among those on Hyperion’s list of prospects.  One obvious reason for the omission are the regulatory hurdles in place in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Nuclear power is regarded with suspicion and worse in the States, making the U.S. one of the last places where what seems to amount to a prototype device could be deployed.

Still, I wonder.  The need and the technology are both to the point that such a device could become an acceptable risk/reward tradeoff for countries tired of literally being held over a barrel by the thuggish OPEC cartel and the passive-aggressive Russians.

In a former life I knew a nuclear engineer who’d worked for years in a U.S. power plant.  His estimation of his plant’s safety plan could not possibly been higher.  Pride goeth before the fall, it’s been written.  Still, those in a position to know believe nuclear power is safe and clean.  I’m inclined to trust their judgment.

Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with my former acquaintance and get his take on Hyperion’s offering.  Any scientists in the audience with thoughts to share in the interim?

A Small Example of What Science is For

29.05.2008 (6:33 am) – Filed under: Science,Technology ::

Following on to Claudia’s piece about the importance of scientific R&D, this article, while admittedly monkey business, illustrates the point:

Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary

From a technical perspective, we’re getting fairly close to being able to do something similar in humans.

Scientists expect that technology will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives.

There’s still debate over how practical this technology is and we don’t know how well humans would adapt to such implants, among other unknowns.  But it’s pretty darn cool and if you’re a person who’d be aided by such a device, potentially very helpful.

This experiment is one step farther along than previous ones, one more incremental improvement in a long series of them that may ultimately lead to insanely useful interfaces between man and machine.  These sorts of discoveries don’t come quickly or cheaply in most cases.  Many of the components of this latest device were undoubtedly intended for completely different purposes than monkey-brain-robotics, yet here we are.  Necessity may be the mother of invention, but without the fruits of R&D work to act as catalysts, need would remain barren.

Why go to the moon, Mars, or the asteroid belt?  What’s the point?  To me that’s the wrong question.  The right question is:  "Why not?"  That’s always the question, to which there are some valid negative answers.  But fundamentally science is about discovering the truth and for that reason alone should be pursued to the limits of ethics and possibility.

Knowing how things work leads to bigger and bigger discoveries and technologies, often in ways that can’t be predicted in advance.  That’s why the question "What’s it for?", while necessary to ask, shouldn’t serve as a governor on scientific inquiry. 

What’s a monkey-controlled robot-arm for?  In itself, nothing.  10 years from now, who knows?

Climate Change and the Fear Factor

01.01.2008 (9:59 am) – Filed under: Environment,Science,Technology ::

John Tierney has an excellent article in the NY Times science section about global warming and the science and reporting behind the climate change scare.  A must read, IMO.

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported the global temperature average was not a new record — it was actually lower than any year since 2001 — the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007 Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.

Why aren’t these very relevant facts trumpeted in the news and in the blogopsphere as they should be?

When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic: we gauge a danger according to how many examples of it are readily available in our minds. Thus we overestimate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash because we’ve seen such dramatic deaths so often on television

They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. Once the images of Sept. 11 made terrorism seem a major threat, the press and the police lavished attention on potential new attacks and supposed plots. After Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome,” minor malfunctions at nuclear power plants suddenly became newsworthy.

The result of that over dramatization was a draconian halting in the construction of new nuclear power plants.  Fear triumphed over science, in other words, despite the nuclear power industry’s excellent safety record.  Chernobyl was a disaster, of course, a warning that vigilance is needed, but not an indicator of the inevitable.

It’s easy to see the same chain reaction happening now in regard to climate change – one article leads to another and another, each more strident and certain than the one that preceded it.  But is there actually anything to fear?

Global warming has an impact on both polar regions, but they’re also strongly influenced by regional weather patterns and ocean currents. Two studies by NASA and university scientists last year concluded that much of the recent melting of Arctic sea ice was related to a cyclical change in ocean currents and winds, but those studies got relatively little attention — and were certainly no match for the images of struggling polar bears so popular with availability entrepreneurs.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, recently noted the very different reception received last year by two conflicting papers on the link between hurricanes and global warming. He counted 79 news articles about a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and only 3 news articles about one in a far more prestigious journal, Nature.

Guess which paper jibed with the theory — and image of Katrina — presented by Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”?

Indeed, the rock star pseudo-scientist’s view has been spread around the globe by sympathetic journalists with an eye for selling the news, whether true or not.  Why?  The cascade effect, bad news, spreading, becomes worse.

“Many people concerned about climate change,” Dr. Sunstein [Cass R., a law professor at the University of Chicago] says, “want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.”

Sunstein doesn’t doubt the reality of global warming.  Of course, a law degree does not give such an opinion weight.  His evaluation of the spreading of the global warming firestorm, however, is close to definitive.

Tierney:

“In the last few months,” Mr. Gore said, “it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter.” But he was being too modest. Thanks to availability entrepreneurs like him, misinterpreting the weather is getting easier and easier.

Yes.

Not discussed in the article is the all-important question of what, if anything, industrialized nation ought to do to combat climate change.

To me the answers are obvious:  Limit the production of air pollutants to an economically practical level, invest more rather than less into the development of nuclear and hydrogen power sources, and accelerate the use of science and technology in our homes and businesses.

The way to a cleaner, greener society is forward – not backward – and only fear can stop us from getting there, the kind of fear Al Gore and his minions specialize in generating.

Science == Prosperity

28.06.2007 (10:27 pm) – Filed under: Science,Technology ::

The National Academies of Science recently produced a report titled “Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics: The Science of the World Around Us” and in it says that the U.S. has failed to increase funding for CMMP research at the same rate as our competitors and that we have all but lost our position of leadership in the field.

But what in the heck is CMMP, you ask? Essentially its the study of the intersection of matter and energy as applied to making things that are useful to humanity. Sounds vague, but what label can be more specific and still apply to fields as wide-ranging as nanotechnology, quantum computing, super-conductivity, and cutting edge electronics?

In other words, CMMP research points the way to the future of technology. Clearly the U.S. needs to be a leader in this field in order to remain relevant in the second half of this century. The NAS says that we’ve been doing a piss-poor job of it for the last decade and more.

Writing about this report at Ars Technica, John Timmer says:

…government funding has not kept up with the rising costs of research at the same time that the corporate-funded research lab system has collapsed. As a result, US scientific productivity has stagnated at a time when funding and output are booming overseas. The report makes a series of recommendations that it hopes will get US physics research booming again.

Based on publications in Physical Reviews B and E, the US contribution to papers has remained flat over the last decade, while papers originating from other countries have nearly doubled. The report predicts that this reduced output will ultimately exact a price on the American economy.

It suggests that all interested parties, ranging from industry through the Department of Defense and Energy to the academic world, should meet and determine what’s needed to recreate the research environment they once fostered. Unfortunately, beyond calling for these discussions, the report is remarkably vague about how to resuscitate these now moribund labs.

Readers of Thomas Freidman will not be surprised by this. In “The World is Flat“, Freidman so clearly painted a picture of America’s failed future – the very same future that is being starved even now by the billions of dollars wasted in Iraq and at home on self-indulgent welfare programs – that I immediately began to include education as one of my top priority blogging subjects.

Can you imagine a future in which Indian and China dominate the technology fields? I mean really dominates them, not merely at a low-cost manufacturing level – any country with millions of dirt poor people can do that given the political will – but at the design capabilities level where inventions – and progress – is really made?

I can and it scares the hell out of me. Not for my sake – I’m halfway to the finish line and the U.S. will hold up long enough for me to reach the end of the line (unless the Muslims pull some lunacy in Israel, in which case this post won’t matter much). No, my concern is for my children’s sake, not my own.

In the end, that’s why we scratch, claw, work, and compete the way we do in American – to provide a better life for our children than the one we had. At least it is for the sane. I propose to speak only to and for them anyway, the loons being totally irrelevant.

Therefore, I’ve reduced the equation to one that even losers like Paris “Tilt In” Hilton can understand:

Science == Prosperity

Not too difficult, is it? Even an elected official, say someone with a vote in the way that federal expenditures are allocated to the various worthy and unworthy causes that have their hands out and voices raised, ought to be able to understand something so obvious.

Yet in the last 5 years the probability of a university researcher getting a grant application funded has been cut almost in half while those of new researchers have fallen even further. Meanwhile the cost of supporting students has increased more than the size of grants. Small wonder that U.S. authors have seen their output in terms of publishable works stagnate while their foreign competitors have doubled theirs.

Scientific research in fields like CMMP and space exploration is where the hundreds of billions of dollars poured into Iraq should have gone.

(While it’s too late to cry over spilt milk and we have to remain engaged there until some conclusion is reached, that fact doesn’t change the truth of the previous paragraph.)

George Bush purports to support scientific research but his actions show otherwise. Using perhaps the most visible example, NASA’s budget has not increased markedly during Bush’s administration. The space shuttle is still being flown and no crash program to replace it has been initiated. Americans have not returned to the moon nor left for Mars.

In short, we have done nothing to advance ourselves. How long can this blaise approach to the business of high-tech competition be allowed to continue? Not long, in this writer’s opinion.

Stem Cells

21.06.2007 (6:47 am) – Filed under: Medicine,Science ::

It’s not popular to say that Bush’s veto of the recent bill promoting embryonic stell cell research is for the best.  But I’ll go on record saying it anyway.  Bush said:

“If this legislation became law, it would compel American taxpayers for the first time in our history to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos,” Bush said. “I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line.”

Indeed, there are moral lines that should not be systematically crossed, the deliberate creation and destruction of human life perhaps first among them.

The bill itself states that embryos used for research would not be specifically created for that purpose:

The president and other critics condemn the legislation as morally offensive because it would lead to the destruction of human embryos to derive stem cells.

But backers note the legislation would only permit scientists to use embryos left over from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded. They also say it could clear the way for possible medical advances that could help millions of people suffering with debilitating diseases.

But that position is rather transparent.  Given a demand, economics dictates that there will come into existence a supply, whether through leftovers, as the bill suggests, or from deliberate fertilization for research and profit motives. 

Is that wrong?  Personally I do believe it is wrong.  But I do not know.  Can anyone be certain?  In the area of human life and the possible implications of creating and destroying it on a massive scale it seems best to be conservative.

I am all for legitimate scientific research.  But I am not convinced that embryonic stell cell research is even scientifically necessary or ethically desirable.

Consider the recent discovery by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston showing that adult stem cells could produce insulin and potentially cure type 1 diabetes.

Clearly we haven’t even come close to exhausting the possibilities presented by adult and umbilical sources of stem cells.  If anything we’ve barely begun studying the potential applications of adult stem cells and have little idea what advances might be derived from them. 

From the article:

Denner said this research, which reflects a fruitful collaboration with co-authors Drs. Colin McGuckin and Nico Forraz at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in the United Kingdom, used human umbilical cord blood because it is an especially rich source of fresh adult stem cells and is easily available from donors undergoing Caesarian section deliveries in UTMB hospitals. “However,” he added, “embryonic stem cell research was absolutely necessary to teach us how to do this.”

Note the last.  Cleary American scientists are have been envious of their foreign counterparts who work in countries with less restrictive laws regarding embronic stem cells research.  As Denner states, many scientists believe they need embryonic stem cells to show them the way.

So do many individuals and publications support the research.  Newsweek/MSNBC allowed Patti Davis to run a caustic, rambling anti-Bush, pro-stem cell research diatribe from which this drivel was culled:

But apparently, the destruction of fertilized eggs—flushed away as if they’re useless—doesn’t count as murder. Only using those fertilized eggs for valuable scientific research that could eventually save people’s lives counts as murder in this president’s mind. No one in this administration, with all their wordplay and posturing, has been able to dance around that stunning lack of logic.

We are being asked to believe that this president’s opposition to embryonic stem-cell research has deep moral, religious and ethical roots. As we heard, the word “murder” is tossed around freely.

Yet this is a president who led us into a war with a patchwork quilt of lies. Thousands of American soldiers have died. Thousands more have returned horribly wounded, and we don’t even know yet what toll posttraumatic stress disorder will take on those who obeyed their commander in chief and went to fight in Iraq. We may never know the complete death toll of Iraqi citizens, but we certainly know that some were raped and brutally executed. There have been many beheadings, sometimes of Americans who simply went to Iraq to help the people there, not to fight. Let us please not forget 26-year-old Nick Berg who was beheaded in May 2004. Where is President Bush’s grief over all those deaths? He directs his moral outrage instead to the idea of using fertilized eggs, that would otherwise be destroyed, for potentially life-saving scientific research. He tells us it’s because he cares so deeply about life.

Where was his care in the aftermath of Katrina? This president, when he finally did touch down in Louisiana, made a smirking remark about the good times he used to have in New Orleans. As if alluding to his hard-partying past was appropriate while people were suffering and dying in the Superdome, while bodies were lying bloated in the streets.

Wow.  That’s very inciteful, Patti.  </sarc>

That bit of anti-Bush rabble-rousing may motivate the liberals to take up arms and pitchforks but it does nothing to prove the case for the research itself.

The pro-research position also leaves open the question of whether or not humans should seek to extend their life spans beyond what nature has allotted them.

We all want to live longer, healthier lives.  And we all want our loved ones the do the same.  And it would be great if crippled people like Christopher Reeve could rise and walk again.

But should we – on a global basis – attempt to live 10 or 20 years longer?

There are certain realities in the physical world that say otherwise.  Listening to the environmental lobby makes it clear that a significant number of people believe that the Earth’s environment is breaking down.

Whether that’s proven is another matter.  But the same people who blame industrial progress and growth – the natural condition of living men and women – for ruining the Earth seek to extend our lives well beyond what we have today.  Where is the logic in those contradictory positions?

The truth is that all things die and that humans are and should be no different.  Death is part of humanity’s renewal process.  If the old never leave them how can the young ever truly grow up, take over, and reach their potential?

Overpopulation is a very real problem and one that has been discussed for decades.  Proponents of embryonic stem cell research would produce wondrous cures with the knowledge they expect to gain from their experiments, cures that would only exacerbate this fundamental problem.

It’s unclear how they resolve these and other ethical dilemnas.

As for me, I think I’ve made my position clear.

Health, Ethics, and Stem Cell Research

18.01.2007 (1:34 pm) – Filed under: Science,Society ::

Everyone wants to live longer, healthier lives, don’t they? Actually, no, most Americans don’t care enough about their quality of life to take the steps needed to maintain and improve their physical well-being. Call it anecdotal evidence if you want to but this claim seems self-evident: people say they care about their own bodies but they do not.

If they did they would:

  • Get more sleep
  • Follow an regular exercise plan
  • Have regular medical checkups
  • Deliberately lessen stress

And they wouldn’t:

  • Drink excessively
  • Smoke
  • Take habit forming drugs
  • Overeat

Americans are known for making bad eating choices. They are also becoming known for being an obese people because of the bad food they consume in too-large quantities and because of their consistent lack of exercise. These are also self-evident facts. Look around. Take it in.

American’s average life expectancy is almost 78 years, far better than most countries around the world. Is it because of their astute dietary insights and demanding exercise regimens? Hardly. It’s a result of the vast medical expenditures that we’re making, expenditures that cannot be sustained over time, expenditures that are bankrupting MediCare and causing insurance premiums to rise astronomically.

The simple fact is that human bodies wear out and the more abuse they are subjected to the faster they deteriorate. Whose fault is it then when an overweight smoker and heavy drinker who has never exercised with anything heavier than a 12 ounce can of Blatz is diagnosed with heart disease or lung cancer? And who should bear the burden of the associated costs?

Furthermore, what steps should be taken to correct the medical problems in his life? Current medical science cannot save this man. For all intents and purposes he’s the walking dead. Are we obligated to save him? At what expense and whose? Thinking on a long-term basis, what types of research are we bound to undertake for the sake of those who fail to care for themselves? Which sorts of experiments are needed and which, if any, should be off-limits?

Today’s debates center around embryonic stem cell research because of the ethical issues involved and the potential for “life-saving” treatments that might be derived from experiments with human embryos.

The thing is that we’re all dying. No life is every saved in any hospital. Life is prolonged, yes, but never saved permanently. To be clear, we’re talking about quantities of time, that’s all.

How these stem cells work and how they might be used to cure diseases and other health problems is not well-understood. We’re at the level of Pasteur, peering into primitive lenses and trying to discern the work of an infinitely more advanced maker. Perhaps we can achieve an understanding of these cells’ function and put them to use. Perhaps not.

The larger question is: Would something be lost in the attempt? What is the value of a human embryo? Is there any?

Yes. With its potential to create a human life, an embryo is inherently worth an indeteriminate value. In 100 years the value of this potential life could be said to be known with some accuracy; however, in the moment nothing is certain. What might, if that embryo is brought to fruition, take residence in the resulting body? Einstein, Hitler, or another Joe Sixpack – only God knows.

As much as I am a proponent of scientific advancement, I cannot advocate the creation of human embryos for the purpose of experimental research. The destruction of even the potential for human life seems somehow fraught with peril. In this I think President Bush is correct – we should not allow this to happen in America as an accepted scientific practice.

The primary opposing argument is that some other, less scrupulous country will simply perform the research in their own labs using their own, perhaps less controlled, techniques. And?

Happily a compromise may be in the offing. Wake Forest University scientists have reported a new discovery indicating that considerable progress can be made without the destruction of human embryos by using amniotic fluid instead. According to the Washington Post:

A type of cell that floats freely in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women has been found to have many of the same traits as embryonic stem cells, including an ability to grow into brain, muscle and other tissues that could be used to treat a variety of diseases, scientists reported yesterday. [ed: January 8th, 2007]

More information can be found here.

This new discovery indicates to me that more study is needed in regards to the ethics of medicine in general and stem cell research in particular. While it is sometimes wrong to wait and obtain a more complete understanding of the facts before taking action, nothing in the field of medical research demands undo haste.

After all, there’s one thing that’s certain about life – no one gets out of it alive.