Friday, December 21, 2007

What's The Matter With Texas? Creationism On Its Way Back

Is the State of Texas about to offer Master of Science degrees in creationism? The Institute for Creation Research (ICR), an organization that officially believes the earth sprang into existence less than 10,000 years ago, has applied to offer a state-approved Master's program in science education. Last week, an official advisory committee recommended that the State of Texas approve the ICR's request to offer Master's degrees (read about it here and here). If this request is granted, the ICR has two years in which it can offer state-approved Master's degrees while seeking accreditation for its program from a recognized, outside accreditation organization. Coming on the heels of news that one of the state's science education officials was forced out of her job because she was not "neutral" about standing up for evolution education, this latest event suggests that creationism is about to again become a big issue in the Texas educational system.

It is one thing for a private organization to teach whatever outlandish beliefs it prefers, and for students to attend non-accredited colleges - it's their educational choice, and no big loss to the rest of the educational system. But it's another issue altogether for the state to give its imprimatur to such an organization when intends to train science teachers who will then go out and work such sectarian and unscientific beliefs into public school science classes.

Is it acceptable to accredit a science education program that teaches science students that they can build perpetual motion machines that violate the laws of thermodynamics? That matter is not made up of atoms, and that diseases are caused by 'humours' and not germs? Of course not, and by the same token, it is wrong to give state approval to a Master's program that teaches future science educators that the earth suddenly appeared less than 10,000 years ago, and that today's living species did not descend from a common set of ancestors.

The ICR is free to preach whatever it likes, but it should not be allowed to dress sectarian beliefs up as science and use them to train science teachers who will be hired by the state to teach in public schools. The stuff that institutions like the ICR and the Discovery Institute peddle is not science. Its advocates repeatedly exhibit an extremely poor grasp of the scientific theories they are supposedly critiquing, and in their criticisms they continue to make basic errors about the actual technical content of mainstream science. They love to scour scientific journals and highlight material that they (wrongly) believe undercuts evolution, yet tellingly, they never actually participate in such research themselves. (If Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe is so convinced that pseudogenes are the product of an intelligent designer and not the accidents of evolution, why isn't he doing any research himself to look for functional pseudogenes?)

The quality of science education in US schools is falling behind that of other industrialized nations, and here we are, taking actions to officially support organizations that are devoting millions of dollars to undercut good science education. Southern states are trying hard to attract scientific talent and biotech dollars to their states, but people who are able to perform top science are generally not very eager to move to a state where their kids are likely to be taught some variant of creationism at school. Texas officials need to show some spine and maintain the integrity of science education in their state.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Seeing Human Embryos - Two Different Perspectives

The NY Times today has a profile on Shinya Yamanaka, the senior author on one of the recent papers reporting the creation of pluripotent stem cells by expressing 4 transcription factor genes in adult fibroblasts. Yamanaka (who "is known on campus for refusing to join colleagues for lunch, choosing to eat by himself so he can keep working" - unfortunate, since informal conversations with colleagues can really be quite useful) has without question achieved something significant by successfully creating stem cells, first from mice and then from human fibroblasts. However I take issue with Yamanaka's outlook on the ethics:

"Dr. Yamanaka was an assistant professor of pharmacology doing research involving embryonic stem cells when he made the social call to the clinic about eight years ago. At the friend’s invitation, he looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic. The glimpse changed his scientific career.

'When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,' said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. 'I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.'"

You might expect Dr. Yamanaka to be concerned about the much greater destruction of embryos that takes place in fertilization clinics - far more human embryos are destroyed there than in research labs. A petri dish is not exactly the most natural environment for an embryo, and the very act of creating embryos in vitro puts those embryos at risk.

While I'm not belittling Dr. Yamanaka for his views, and realize that he's just giving his impression and not necessarily making a strong ethical statement, I do think we should realize that his reaction is not universal. I've seen human embryos as well - and two of them became my youngest daughters. Several others never made it that far. I don't feel traces of sorrow for those lost embryos.

I suspect most physicians who work in fertility clinics feel the same way. Many, if not most scientists whose views I personally know, share this persepctive. We're happy for the ones that become human beings, but we don't lose sleep over the millions of little clusters of cells that are lost each year, both in and outside of IVF clinics.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Stem Cell Researchers Respond to Bush's Claim

The White House has claimed that Bush's firm stance against embryonic stem cell research helped to stimulate the recent breakthroughs in creating pluripotent cells without destroying embryos.

In an editorial in the Washington Post, stem cell researchers themselves respond.