Friday, November 18, 2011

My Take on the News: Stem Cells, Science, and "The Man with the X-Ray Eyes"

Quite a lot was in the news this week, but I picked this pair for my weekly take on the news:
  1. Science, Limits, and the Pope
  2. Stem Cells, Business, and the Vatican

Religion, Science, and Dealing with Facts

Ever get the impression that science and religion are like mongoose and cobra, bitter enemies? And that 'religious people' are against education, because their kids might learn something that's not 'in the Bible?'

What Bible-thumpers seem most upset about are ideas that contradict Bishop Ussher's cozy little model of the universe.

Bishop Ussher, who was sincerely not Catholic,1 came up with 4004 B.C. as the year when God made the universe. Ussher could be right, but I doubt it. Evidence we've collected over the last several centuries indicates otherwise.2

Insisting that something has to be 'in the Bible' to be true may 'feel right.' The idea's hard to apply consistently, though.

Take Chicago, Illinois, for example. It isn't in the Bible, but I've yet to hear objections to teaching children about Chicago. And I'm wandering off-topic.

Here's what I think about science, stem cells, and the Vatican's new venture:

1. Science, Limits, and the Pope

'Mad scientist' movies were fairly popular when I was growing up. A fair number of them made their way into late-night television, anyway. The story sometimes involved 'tampering with things Man Was Not Meant To Know:'3

Not all of those movies involved giant mutant atomic insects. Some even involved thought-provoking (?) dialog:
"Dr. James Xavier: I'm blind to all but a tenth of the universe.
"Dr. Sam Brant: My dear friend, only the gods see everything.
"Dr. James Xavier: My dear doctor, I'm closing in on the gods."
("X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" (1963))
That line, "I'm closing in on the gods," brings up another notion from the "B" movies: that some scientists think they're "beyond good and evil." Sadly, too many scientists and doctors acted as if they believed that rules were for lesser beings:
  • Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932-1972)
  • Harold Blauer (1952)
  • High oxygen to premature infants (1953)
  • Injections of cancer cells (1963)
  • Hepatitis in retarded children (1964+)
  • Cincinnati radiation experiments (1960-72)
I'll admit to bias about ethics and research: I'm the survivor of a medical experiment, and that's not quite another topic.4

I think one reason that so many folks see religion and science as enemies is that it's hard to fit Christian beliefs into the 'anything for science' attitude. Then there's the Bishop Ussher business, and that's another topic.1

With a little editing, this news item could be "proof" that the Catholic Church is anti-science:
"Pope: No Human Life Is Dispensable" News Agency, via EWTN (November 15, 2011)

"Benedict XVI is acknowledging the temptations facing scientists who seek cures for degenerative illnesses, but he says that not even one human life can be destroyed for the benefit of another.

"The Pope said this Saturday in an address to some 250 participants in an international conference on 'Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture.' The symposium was promoted by the Pontifical Council for Culture in collaboration with the U.S. Stem for Life Foundation.

"The three-day meeting examined the use of adult stem cells in medicine, both from the perspective of science, and from that of its cultural, ethical and anthropological implications.

"The Holy Father recalled that, because of human beings' immortal souls, 'there are dimensions of human existence that lie beyond the limits of what the natural sciences are competent to determine.'..."
An awkward aspect of acknowledging 'the big picture' is that it tends to put limits on what we're allowed to do. Like killing Fred to get organs that save Sam's life.

On the other hand, the Church is okay with science:
"Scientific, medical, or psychological experiments on human individuals or groups can contribute to healing the sick and the advancement of public health."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292)
Provided that we follow some ethical guidelines. (Catechism, 2292-2295) Organ transplants are okay, too. (Catechism, 2296)

2. Stem Cells, Business, and the Vatican

I think it'd be harder to spin this item as 'proof' that the Catholic Church doesn't care about human suffering, and is against scientific progress. I suppose it could be done, though:
"Vatican launches stem cell venture with US company"
CNA/EWTN News (November 16, 2011)

"The Vatican has signed its first ever commercial agreement with an outside company. The contract with U.S.-based bio-pharmaceutical firm NeoStem will advance ethical research into stem cells.

" 'We would like to create a hotspot for scientists, benefactors, academics (and) Church leaders that will now join this group and would work together for the benefit of humanity,' Fr. Tomaz Trafny of the Vatican's Council for Culture told CNA June 16.

"The deal was announced before the global media in Rome this morning.

" 'We are a public company pioneering new medical research with adult stem cells,' explained Doctor Robin Smith, the CEO of NeoStem.

" 'This research has the potential to alleviate human suffering by unlocking the healing power of the human body. Most importantly, we are able to do all this without destroying another human life,' she said...."
As Doctor Smith said, this will be "new medical research with adult stem cells." Despite an emphasis on stem cells from folks who are still embryos, we've known about adult stem cells for quite a while. Researchers don't have to kill people to get stem cells.

So, why the emphasis on stem cells 'harvested' from bodies coming out of abortion centers?

Dred Scott, Nuremberg, and "Potential Women"

Maybe this is cynical, but I suspect that focusing on stem cells from 'women's health centers' is a way to position abortion as a good thing. After all: what reasonable, caring person would oppose medical research?

The trick, of course, is to focus on the 'real' people who might benefit from research: and deny that the folks being killed are people. Denying the humanity of inconvenient or unwanted people is not limited to historical examples like the Dred Scott decision, or Nazi-era Germany:
"...In her eye-opening book, 'Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,' journalist Mara Hvistendahl estimates that ultrasound and abortion have 'claimed over 160 million potential women and girls - in Asia alone.' That's more than the entire female population of the United States...."

"...These immigrant women, the study observed, 'are both the assumed beneficiaries of reproductive choice while remaining vulnerable to family violence and reproductive coercion.'..."
("In this brave new world, girls disappear, Debra J. Saunders, SFGate, San Francisco Chronicle (July 31, 2011)) [emphasis mine]
(cited August 11, 2011)
I've discussed depersonalization before. (See Footnote 6 (October 7, 2011))

That excerpt impressed me. Saunders was apparently concerned about millions of girls being killed. So far, so good. But, since the baby girls are killed before they're born: "reproductive choice" is involved.

Saunders was, I think, facing a dilemma. On the one hand, selectively killing girls was deliberate attack on woman-kind. But abortion is involved: and that is a "right" which many regard as paramount. Deciding that the victims are merely "potential" people is a solution: of sorts.

Is there an age at which Saunders thinks people stop being "potential" people; and when we become real? I don't know. Maybe she hasn't allowed herself to think in those terms.

Science, Technology, and Zeppelins

One reason I don't yearn for the 'good old days' is that I know what they were like.

The notion that science and technology will solve all our problems is silly. But much of an American's everyday life depends on technology and applied science, like relatively affordable clothing. Street lighting is nice, too.

It's also nice to be unconscious during major surgery. Last year I put together a short list of newish technologies:
  • Anesthesia
  • Antiseptics
  • The Jacquard Loom
  • The McCormick reaper
  • Steam locomotives
  • The telegraph
  • A variety of electric lighting devices
    ( 1800s)
The first half of the 20th century was more of the same:
  • Air conditioners
  • Kidney dialysis machines
  • Neon lights
  • Penicillin
  • Talking motion pictures
  • Radio transmitters and receivers
  • Zeppelins
    • Okay: so not all inventions caught on
    ( 1900s)
(First posted October 30, 2010)

I think it's a mistake to see science and technology either as a cure-all for humanity's needs; or as something that's going to kill us all. It looks like I'm not the only one who sees the situation this way:
"Certainly the Church acknowledges that 'with the help of science and technology…, man has extended his mastery over almost the whole of nature', and thus 'he now produces by his own enterprise benefits once looked for from heavenly powers' (Gaudium et Spes, 33). at the same time, Christianity does not posit an inevitable conflict between supernatural faith and scientific progress. The very starting-point of Biblical revelation is the affirmation that God created human beings, endowed them with reason, and set them over all the creatures of the earth. In this way, man has become the steward of creation and God's 'helper'....

"...Science, however, while giving generously, gives only what it is meant to give. Man cannot place in science and technology so radical and unconditional a trust as to believe that scientific and technological progress can explain everything and completely fulfil [!] all his existential and spiritual needs...."
Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 6 November 2006."
From "Plenary Session on The Scientific Legacy of the 20th Century" (PDF) (28 October - 1 November 2010)
(Originally posted October 30, 2010)
Finally, I think it's important to remember that not all scientists are like Doctor Xavier in "X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes." And that, no matter what you read in the papers, NOT ALL CHRISTIANS ARE DOLTS." And that's another topic.

Related posts:

1 Bishop Ussher did his best to warn folks about " 'papists' and their 'superstitious' faith and 'erroneous' doctrine." (Linder) He also read the Bible, did some calculations, and decided that God created the universe in the year 4004 B.C. - 'It says so in the Bible.'

I'm not going to tell God that He couldn't have created Ussher's world, following Ussher's specifications. I'm not going to tell God that He couldn't have created a universe that's much larger than what I'd probably have planned.

Basically, God's large and in charge, and I'm willing to learn about what the Almighty's done - not tell Him how it ought to be. I've been over this before:
  • God is all-powerful, but his power is not arbitrary (271)
  • Creation is being completed - it is "in a state of journeying" toward perfection, but isn't there yet (302)
  • "...The sacred books powerfully affirm God's absolute sovereignty over the course of events: 'Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.'..." (303")
(From March 5, 2009)

More of my take on shrill campus secularists, Bible-thumping disciples of Ussher, and getting a grip:"2 The notion that the universe is a few thousand years old, because the Bible says so, goes back at least as far as Bishop Ussher. He wasn't a Catholic bishop, and I've been over this before:
3 I'd like to think that folks don't take what they see in the movies seriously:
I used that list before, in footnote 1 of "Faustus, Mephistopheles, and a Simple Contract: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?" (September 20, 2011).

4 It's not always 'the other guy' who's experimenting on unwilling subjects:
Don't get me wrong: I like living in America. Partly because this country has a pretty good track record for (eventually) learning from its horrible mistakes:

"A Lesson from Nürnberg: Get Informed Consent Before Experimenting on People

"The so-called Nürnberg Code was supposed to give physicians guidelines about how to use people as guinea pigs. It didn't work quite as well as might have been hoped. "After the code was set up, America saw a number of more-or-less well-publicized lapses:
  • "Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932-1972)
    Black men in in Macon County, Alabama, who had syphilis weren't treated
  • "Harold Blauer (1952)
    Mr. Blauer went to the New York State Psychiatric Institute for treatment of depression, was dosed with mescaline derivatives supplied by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps: then he killed himself
  • "High oxygen to premature infants (1953)
    Premature babies were exposed to high levels of oxygen: the doctor knew that it would probably cause blindness, and noticed their eyes swelling, but kept up the treatment anyway
  • "Injections of cancer cells (1963)
    Doctors wanted to know if cancer cells would thrive as well in patients who were debilitated by something other than cancer, as they did in debilitated cancer patients, so they injected cancer cells into patients who didn't have cancer - without telling them.
    • "Ironically, this non-consensual research was done at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital. And: "Two years later, the American Cancer Society elected the principal investigator to be their Vice-President."
  • "Hepatitis in retarded children (1964+)
    The Willowbrook State Hospital in New York injected severely retarded children with hepatitis virus: as 'a vaccine against hepatitis.' True enough, survivors of the disease had an immunity.
  • "Cincinnati radiation experiments (1960-72)
    Blacks, again, and this time exposed to high radiation. For the U.S. military.

    "Without their consent
    "Source: "Nonconsensual Medical Experiments on Human Beings" (copyright 1997 by Ronald B. Standler)

"What's Going on Here?

"Although half of the cases that Mr. Standler mentioned involved the American military, half didn't. I don't see these excesses of experimental enthusiasm from the fifties and sixties - or the current scandal at the VA - so much as a military problem, as a medical one...." (Another War-on-Terror Blog (June 17, 2008))


Brigid said...

I don't think this sentence is complete: "Emphasis on stem cells from folks who are still embryos, we've known about adult stem cells for quite a while."

Stutter: "which which many regard as paramount."

Awkward grammar: "people; and when become real?"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Oops, and fixed. You should have seen this before I cleaned up typos and bad edits. ;)

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