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A Science Debate?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 24th, 2007

A group of science advocates are circulating a public statement calling for a presidential candidate debate on science and technology. Considering that one of the serious contenders for the leader of the world's most powerful nation does not believe in evolution, I share their desire that the next president not only understands but actually agrees with basic scientific tenets. But the framing of the issue thus far does not make me optimistic that the right questions would be asked.

Much of the emergent "pro-science" political movement seems to mistake differing beliefs for bad science. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, disbelievers in evolution, and backers of Terry Schiavo's life support generally reached their positions through deeply-held - and often religious - worldviews, not by relying on faulty data or poorly-designed experiments. Granted, once in this position, these believers often highlighted distorted pseudo-science, such as David Prentice's list of the dozens of cures from adult stem cells. The real substance of the disagreements are ethical, philosophical, or religious. The question that is often implied by science advocates - Are you for or against science? - is not only ridiculous, but it misses the point. The unfortunate result of this approach is the casting of science as a polarized, all-or-nothing issue.

Regardless, a debate on science and technology policy would be a welcome development. From a political perspective, it would put candidates who rely on a reactionary base in a difficult position. And from a policy perspective, questions about the appropriate oversight of science are deeply relevant. For example, would the candidates support the return of the Office of Technology Assessment? How would they consider the precautionary principle in the face of powerful new and untested technologies? Do the candidates agree with a current senator, "that science ought to be unfettered?" Or do some research methods and technological applications, due to potentials for the exploitation of vulnerable groups or large-scale unforeseeable consequences, warrant effective societal oversight?

Unfortunately, when science is framed in such a partisan manner, these questions are likely to go unasked.


Yamanaka: Non-scientists Should Oversee Stem Cell Research

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 17th, 2007

In a new interview [subscription required], Shinya Yamanaka - probably the leading researcher in the reprogramming of somatic cells for pluripotency - touched on the need for oversight of stem cell research. Perhaps most importantly, he emphasized that non-scientists need to take the lead in deciding what's acceptable:

Q: Who do you think should be responsible for deciding what is ethically acceptable?

These are very difficult decisions, and I think that society should make them. It should not be scientists. They can find it difficult to think like the person on the street, and instead may see it simply as a good opportunity. We scientists can be involved in the decision-making process, but I think unless society is comfortable with the therapy it should not go ahead.
He claimed that the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells produced from cell reprogramming are less problematic than those from embryos, but not entirely free from concern:
I'm not sure whether we should try to make eggs from male iPS cells and vice versa. In theory, two men could use this technology to have a baby, because you could take skin cells and use them to make an egg.
He's previously noted that somatic cell reprogramming could be used to derive egg and sperm from the same person, which could then be fused. Note that the result would not be a clone. The person's genes are re-sorted during the formation of the gametes. So, for example, if the original individual is heterozygous for a particular gene, the offspring could be heterozygous, dominant homozygous, or recessive homozygous.

Finally, Yamanaka is relatively optimistic that somatic cell reprogramming will allow stem cell scientists to leave cloning behind them:
There is still the problem with retroviruses to overcome. If we cannot do this then there will still be a need for cloning. However, I think it will be possible.

Gene of the Week: Will You Vote?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 14th, 2007

As the nation's media lead voters through the lengthy presidential primary season, it's reassuring to know that reporters and pundits aren't the only ones casting the outcome as inevitable, even before voting has begun. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have now identified two specific genes that appear to contribute significantly to whether one votes or not [PDF].

HT to Kevin Drum.

When You Play With Dirt, You Get Dirty

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on December 13th, 2007

Slate’s Will Saletan has backed himself into a corner by coming to the defense of James Watson – the eccentric DNA pioneer who found himself pontificating on how Blacks’ separate evolutionary patterns conferred genes to them that depresses their intellects. Like any liberal-minded person, Saletan disavows white supremacy as an idea. But when it comes to cold hard data on race and intelligence, he becomes transfixed; any true effort at egalitarianism, he believes, must engage with reality rather than ignore it. This is the basis of Saletan’s exhaustive three-part series that tries to separate the empirical question of race and intelligence (vis a vis genome sequencing and IQ tests) from the inherent racism that gives legs to this conversation.

Suffice it to say that Saletan’s foray into the “hereditarian theory of intelligence” debate has been disastrous. (Those interested in seeing his argument taken apart piece by piece can click here and here.) Saletan has been rightly attacked for the racist nature of his commentary, but less attention has been paid to a similarly troubling aspect of his rant: advocating eugenics. After reciting rather weak data correlating certain genes with intelligence and misusing data from the International HapMap Project to ostensibly show that West Africans disproportionately lack the so-called “intelligence gene," Saletan passionately argues:

“Don't tell me those Nigerian babies aren't cognitively disadvantaged. Don't tell me it isn't genetic. Don't tell me it's God's will. And in the age of genetic modification, don't tell me we can't do anything about it.”

Saletan seems to be saying that not only are Blacks genetically inferior, but that they should be genetically modified in order to keep their genomes up with the Jones’. This twisted logic – made under the guise of leveling the genetic playing field – reveals the very real danger of a 21st century eugenics, where the explicit bias and state coercion that characterized last century’s eugenics is replaced by the soft bigotry of fetishizing technology as the remedy for all social ills.

Saletan’s arguments also show how this new eugenics, like the old, is likely to prey upon disadvantaged minorities – all while claiming to help them. For example, he notes that “2.2 percent of the project's Chinese-Japanese population samples, 5 percent of its European-American samples, and 10 percent of its Nigerian samples lack the [intelligence] gene.” Yet, he only proposes subjecting Nigerian children to genetic engineering and not the Whites who, by his own logic, are also “cognitively disadvantaged” in comparison to Asians.

Funny how that works.

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