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Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight

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Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am

three quite pleasurable little rants and rallies

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Bai Ping Ting

on Chinese women, fantasy and reality

I’ve been watching The General and I, a charming if generally ludicrous multi-million dollar Chinese historical fantasy series about a woman whose leadership abilities all men defer to. Fat chance of that happening in the real China, where the dictatorship of macho thugs has reigned supreme for decades. But could today’s fantasy – minus all the superhero powers – ever become tomorrow’s reality?

China, like every other country, has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to be fair the dictatorship (I refuse to endorse the charade of calling the country a people’s republic) is moving with the times in calling for greater gender equality. However the political reality is clear. China’s dictatorship is essentially based on the nine members of the ‘Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party’, and of course these individuals are regularly replaced over time. No woman has ever been Standing (or even Sitting) on this Committee, and according to Wikipedia, ‘since 1997, China has fallen to 53rd place from 16th in the world in terms of female representation at its parliament, the National People’s Congress, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’.

Soong Ching-ling

It’s a disastrous situation, especially considering that in terms of women in the workforce, China is one of the world’s most egalitarian nations, outdoing the USA, Japan and many other developed countries. There seems to be little motivation to encourage women into the really important political jobs – the jobs they’d be best suited for as the more collaborative gender, and Angelababy’s Bai Ping Ting (actually not the most collaborative of females) is unlikely to change the situation. There doesn’t seem to be any woman of anywhere near the political stature of Cixi or Soong Ching-ling today. So I’d urge the smart women of China – there are millions of them – to rise up and demand their government to open its doors and let them in. They can’t do a Tianenman Square on you this time!

Cixi

 

on the archbishop of everywhere and nowhere

The same-sex marriage/marriage equality no-brainer has dragged on for far too long here. The other day I heard a fat archbishop of somewhere-or-other being introduced by the ABC to put the nope case. He started on about marriage being meant to be between a man and a woman, and I switched him off. Ahhh, but to have spent some time alone with him…Ok, I’d promise to have my hands tied behind my back. I’d ask him, how may female archbishops are there, mate? I mean, throughout history? In round figures? How many female bishops? Cardinals? Popes? You don’t think that’s relevant? Are you prepared to admit that your organisation’s hierarchy is extremely patriarchal? Like, the most patriarchal institution in the western world by a million miles? No, don’t blether on about your Mamma Superiors, I’m talking about the big decision-makers, you know that. And have you noticed how the most patriarchal societies in the world – look at the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe – are also the most homophobic? You think that’s coincidence? Bullshit, patriarchy and homophobia hang together like a pair of testicles, and if you were a female archbishop, as you should be, you wouldn’t be sitting there spewing shit. But no, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church would rather collapse under the weight of its own criminality than appoint a female to high office. So let me now turn to women everywhere, but especially to educated women who identify as Catholic. What the fuck are you thinking? How can you sleep at night? How can you more or less passively support the most retrograde and destructive institution in the western world? If you haven’t the sense to recognise your own interest, do it for other women, straight or gay, religious or no, and make a stand, surely you can do no other.

don’t ban, just abandon

 

on the history of marriage

‘Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and I see no reason to change it.’ These, from memory, were the words of our former PM Julia Gillard, who was otherwise a good leader. Of course, even it it were true that marriage had always been between blokes and sheilas, that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to continue with that exclusive system. It’s a bit like saying ‘blacks have always had to sit at the back of the bus and use the back entrance and eat the leftovers…’ But has marriage always been between men and women (or little girls)? Or even between humans (I’m sure I’ve heard of a few blokes marrying horses and such). Who of us has witnessed the first marriage? Or the second or the fiftieth or the 500th? Where and when did they take place? Ten thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Presumably at the time of mitochondrial Eve, some 180-200,000 years ago from memory, humans – and she was most definitely Homo sapiens – didn’t marry. There was little need for it as far as I can see, as there wouldn’t have been much in the way of property to protect and hand down to your legitimate heirs. And that’s interesting because, since mEve definitely had children, and we’re all descended from them, that makes us all bastards.

We don’t even know if humans were particularly monogamous at that time – we know sweet FA about their sexual liaisons, though it seems likely they were more free and easy than they are now – together with plenty of fighting over best mates. Of course the romantic in me likes to think that a twist of fate could’ve taken us the way of the bonobo, but there’s still time, and I’ll fight for that twist for the rest of my days. Meanwhile, marriage, if we must have it (and I’d rather not) is always what we make it, and making it as inclusive as possible is surely the best for us, and will maybe bring us full circle…

love isn’t blind, just blinkered

Written by stewart henderson

September 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm

on dresses, marriage and patriarchy

with 2 comments

the spice of life

Canto: It seems some schools are still intent on having girls wear dresses to their classes. Why?

Jacinta: Because that’s what girls have traditionally worn. Because some schools insist on an absolute distinction between girls and boys.

Canto: Yes but they must be able to come up with good reasons for that, otherwise they’ll look foolish.

Jacinta: Well girls are girls and boys are boys, aren’t they? How can they be treated equally or identically? It’s obvious.

Canto: Ah, the obvious argument. Like Cook obviously discovered Australia. But this absolute differentiation between males and females has always been a horrible thing to behold. When such absolute differences are insisted on, it’s always accompanied by a sense of the superiority of one side of the differential.

Jacinta: Indeed, as one schoolteacher put it in an interview I saw recently, the dress thing in schools is essentially an insistence that girls should dress more for decoration than for practicality.

Canto: Yes, though there are conditions in which dresses are more practical, in which case they should be allowed for all genders. I’d still like to buy one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook a while ago.

Jacinta: It’s amazing that this gendered stuff hasn’t been questioned, or raged against, more vigorously before now, but the dress thing could be a wedge to open up a pack of gender issues.

Canto: And research has found that girls exercise less than boys, to a significant degree, and dresses undoubtedly contribute to that. It’s being pointed out that making simple changes to uniform policies might be a much cheaper way to address the problem than a ‘girls be active’ campaign.

Jacinta: And it requires leadership from, well, the leaders. Girls aren’t likely to go it alone and risk being mocked by their peers for being different. And it looks like if senior teachers or principals don’t engage in the exercise of change – at last! – then parents will have to make the move, possibly via legal action.

Canto: Yes, the refusal to allow girls to wear clothes appropriate for tree-climbing, mud-wrestling and other typical schoolyard activities is clearly discriminatory. Bring it on!

Jacinta: Seriously we know that both girls and boys, in terms of their mental and physical activities, cover the whole range. Forcing them into specific, gendered outfits inhibits that range. That’s the last thing the wider society wants. So now, due to the same-sex marriage issue and some silly remark from the no campaign about boys wearing dresses, the issue of girls’ uniforms is grabbing a moment’s attention, but will it die down again with no action taken? Our society’s inertia is lamentable, methinks.

Canto: Maybe we should take it upon ourselves to keep the issue alive after the marriage issue gets dealt with – letters to arch-Catholic schools, veiled threats, dress-burnings outside the railings.

Jacinta: Railings and wailings outside the railings. But not outside of individual schools, that would take forever. We need national action. Federal parliament needs a dressing down. But speaking of marriage, I just heard a sound-bite about a woman from Israel, a parliamentarian, who’s calling for a cancellation of marriage. She wants to get rid of it, apparently. Now that takes me back to the old days.

Canto: Is this a feminist issue? I mean, lots of people aren’t keen on marriage, including myself, but I never thought of it as a feminist issue, though of course it would be in more patriarchal cultures.

Jacinta: Well the ‘cancel marriage’ advocate is Merav Michaeli, who worked mainly as a journalist before entering the Israeli parliament, and in her TEDx talk she clearly sees it as a feminist issue and makes a number of valid points…

Canto: But how can this be relevant to gay marriage?

Jacinta: Yes, that could be an argument against her – marriage can evolve rather than be cancelled. She’s right about the history of the marriage arrangement and how it has disadvantaged women, quite massively in fact, but marriage is what we make of it and we can do a better job of the arrangement in the future. Having said that, I’d be quite happy for it to be scrapped.

Canto: I’ve always been interested in different arrangements for rearing kids, other than the two-parent thing. But let’s return to the small issue of dresses. The Western Australian labor government has upped the ante by making it mandatory for schools to offer girls the choice of wearing pants or a dress.

Jacinta: That’s great. I presume this is for primary school. And maybe high school, Though I recall in my high school, a long long time ago, the senior students were weaned off uniforms, in preparation for sensible adult life when they could at last wear what they wanted.

Canto: I’d love to hear the rationale of those schools who don’t allow girls to wear trousers or shorts. And I don’t think just offering the option of shorts for girls is enough – no girl wants to be the only girl in her class to not be wearing a dress. If shorts and trousers really do encourage girls to engage in more play – and they clearly do, then they should be encouraged, for their health’s sake.

Jacinta: It really is discriminatory, as many experts say. And it doesn’t reflect what grown-up women wear. I teach in a college with predominantly female colleagues. Not one of them wears a dress on a regular basis. Most of them have never worn a dress at work, as far as I can recall.

Canto: Which makes me wonder about the female teachers at these hold-out schools. Do they all wear dresses? Imagine a trousered teacher dictating the dress-only-dress code to her female charges. Wouldn’t be surprised if that hasn’t happened somewhere. It’s a weird weird world.

Jacinta: In some ways it might seem a trivial subject, given all the issues about clean energy and so on, things that we’ve been focusing on lately, but these apparently minor issues of dress go to the heart of patriarchy in many ways. After all, these rules are being forced on girls quite often, and they’re telling them something at a very impressionable age, and that’s not a good thing.

Canto: We must try to keep this one in mind, as the issue is likely to go off the boil again and may take decades to fix. I’d also like to know which schools are enforcing these rules. We might try to shame them.

Jacinta: I hear it’s often the parents that insist on it. They’ve sent their kids to a conservative school for a reason. In any case they should be forced to justify their attitudes. I’d like to see them try.

References

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/most-public-school-parents-say-girls-should-not-have-to-wear-skirts-and-dresses-survey-finds/news-story/f9556be30c4251b75a379705ae370f9b

http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/4904291/yep-boys-shouldnt-wear-dresses-neither-should-girls/

https://theconversation.com/why-do-we-still-make-girls-wear-skirts-and-dresses-as-school-uniform-69280

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-08/should-australian-schools-force-girls-to-wear-skirts/8879222

http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/school-life/girls-will-now-be-able-to-wear-shorts-or-pants-at-public-schools-in-wa/news-story/13bac1b41510144e9b872ec27d36b574

Written by stewart henderson

September 12, 2017 at 8:39 am

who’s being stupid here?

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Conservative MP Christian Porter thinks Aboriginal people should stop being stupid and crazy

Interesting that the Federal Minister of Social Security, one Christian Porter, when asked about the move by more local councils to no longer hold citizenship ceremonies on January 26, dismissed them all as nutty and stupid. Considering that the majority of Aboriginal Australians consider that day as a day of mourning for what they’ve lost, this is tantamount to calling those Aboriginal Australians nutty and stupid. But then, these people are in a minority in Australia, so presumably Porter feels safe in insulting them. I’m hopeful that there will be a backlash against this sort of inadvertent and lazy racism.

So the Darebin City Council, which adjoins the Yarra Council in Melbourne, has just announced that it too will boycott January 26 as a special day. To be consistent, the Feds will have to strip that council of its citizenship-bestowing function. And so on.

In this interesting article by James Purtill, written some six months ago, it’s pointed out that 1988, the bicentenary of the British land-grab, marked one of the biggest marches ever seen in Sidney. Since then, the issue has waxed and waned but has never gone away. These moves by local councils will bring the issue out in the open again, making it less easy to dismiss the many people who have reservations about this date as nut-jobs. The debate needs to be civil and respectful, but to me it’s a no-brainer. The date needs to change.

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2017 at 10:48 am

local councils, Australia Day and federal bullying

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It’s all ours boys, from sea to flamin sea. Forget those damn Yanks, our Empire’s just beginning!

Recently a local council, the Yarra City Council, which covers a large portion of the eastern and north-eastern inner suburbs of Melbourne, opted to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, January 26, because of local sensibilities. It has posted the details of its decision, and the reasons for it, online. I find those reasons unexceptionable, but then I’m not a nationalist, I prefer to take an internationalist, humanist view on such issues. So I’ve never celebrated Australia Day, any more than I would celebrate the national day of any other country I happened to land up in, though I relish local customs, cuisines etc.

I have of course noticed, having lived in this country for over fifty years, that Australia Day has become controversial in recent years, for good reason. I happen to be reasonably knowedgable about the date, having read a bit of Australian history and having, over many years, taught the history of that date – Cook’s mapping of Australia’s east coast, the reasons for sending out the first fleet, the arrival in Port Jackson, the planting of the flag, and Britain’s obviously questionable claim to sovereignty – to NESB students in a number of community centres – the very places, sometimes, where citizenship ceremonies were carried out.

It seems clear to me that this date for celebrating Australian nationhood, which really only started to become controversial in the eighties, will eventually be changed. Until it is, controversy will grow. The Yarra Council decision is another move in that controversy, and it won’t be the last. It would be great if this change happened sooner rather than later, to nip the acrimony in the bud, but I doubt that will happen. The Federal Government has used what powers it has to prevent Yarra Council from holding citizenship ceremonies, arguing that the council has politicised the day. However, the controversy that has grown up over the date has always been a political one. Yarra Council’s decision was political, just as was the response of the Feds. On January 26 1788 a Union Jack was raised at Sydney Harbour, and all the land extending to the north, the south, and the west – some 7,692,000 square kilometres, though its extent was completely unknown at the time – was claimed as the possession of Britain, in spite of its clearly being already inhabited. If that wasn’t a political decision, what was it?

The Assistant Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, has spoken for the Feds on this matter. Their argument is that citizenship itself has been politicised by Yarra Council’s decision:

“The code is there to make sure that councils don’t do these sorts of things. We don’t want citizenship ceremonies being used as a political argument for anybody’s political advancement one way or the other.

“It’s our role to uphold the code. We warned them not to do this or we would have to cancel their ability to do it, and I regret that they’ve done it.”

The code being referred to here is the Citizenship Ceremonies Code. The Yarra City Mayor, Amanda Stone, believes the council’s decision isn’t in breach of it. This may or may not be so, but this isn’t really the point. The chosen date for celebrating Australia day commemorates a highly political event, which can never be wished away. Marking this day as the most appropriate day for immigrants to become Australians valorises the date, and the event – essentially a land-grab – even more. So it seems odd, to me, that a decision not to promote this land-grab as representative of the much-touted Australian ‘fair go’, should be worthy of criticism, let alone condemnation and punishment.

Generally the Federal polllies’ response to all this has been confused and disappointing. Our PM has said this, according to the ABC:

“An attack on Australia Day is a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity”

Turnbull knows well enough, though, that the council’s decision isn’t an attack on the concept of Australia Day. It’s a recognition that the date is unacceptable to many people – precisely because that date itself repudiates the values of freedom and fair play, in a very obvious way. Turnbull isn’t stupid, he’s just doing what he’s done so many times of late, making politically expedient noises to maintain the support of his mostly more conservative colleagues.

The Labor leader Bill Shorten’s half-and-half response is also typically political. Here’s how the ABC reports it:

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was also critical of the move.

“Reconciliation is more about changing hearts and minds than it is about moving public holidays,” Mr Shorten said.

“But, of course, if we look at national days important in the history of this country, there is March 1 1901, when the Australian parliament, the Australian nation came into being.”

In other words, ‘reconciliation is about nothing so trivial as the dates of public holidays but, hey, maybe March 1 should be our Australia Day’. Caspar Milquetoast would have been proud of that one.

We’re just at the beginning of this tussle, and the end, I think, is inevitable. Yarra Council isn’t the first to make this decision. The Fremantle Council did the same in December last year, but was bullied into backing down by the Feds. The Yarra Council seems more firm in its resolve, and obviously other councils will follow in due course. The Turnbull government will fall at the next election, and this will encourage more council action and more public debate on the issue. It’ll be interesting to observe how long it all takes…

Written by stewart henderson

August 19, 2017 at 5:51 pm

Face it, same-sex marriage law will affect the religious freedom to discriminate

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The former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, has said recently that if you’re for religious freedom and against political correctness, you should vote no to – same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, or whatever way you want to frame the issue.

As far as I’m aware, this isn’t Abbott’s argument, because an argument has to be argued for, with something like premisses and a conclusion. It’s simply a statement, or a pronouncement, much like the pronouncement made on the same topic by another former PM, Julia Gillard, that she was opposed to same-sex marriage. She would subsequently say that ‘her position was clear’ on the matter, and such remarks appeared to substitute for an argument.

Now we shouldn’t necessarily expect our political leaders to talk like philosophers, but I do think we should expect something more from them than bald pronouncements. Gillard, when subjected to some minuscule pressure on the issue, did say, as I recall, that marriage had always been recognised as being between a man and a woman, and she saw no reason to change it. Of course, as arguments go, this is rather weak, amounting, as it seems, to an objection to change of any kind. You could say, for example, that houses have always been made of wood, so there’s no need to change to any other building material.

What was more troubling about Gillard’s justification, though, was what was left unsaid. It is true that in Australia, marriage has always been recognised as between a man and a woman, though that situation has changed recently in a number of other countries. It’s also true, though it wasn’t referred to by Gillard, that through almost the entire history of male-female marriage in Australia and elsewhere, homosexuals have been tortured, murdered, executed, imprisoned, vilified, loathed and scorned, and treated as beyond the pale, with a few notable exceptions of place and time. So during this long history, the question of same-sex marriage has hardly been prominent in the minds of homosexuals or their detractors.

So I return to Tony Abbott’s pronouncement. I want to see if I can turn it into something like an argument. A no vote supports religious freedom and strikes against political correctness. I’ll take the last part first. What is political correctness? Other pundits are also, I note, asking that question. All that can be said with certainty is that Abbott considers it a bad thing. It’s, not, therefore (at least in his mind) ‘correctness’, which carries much the same meaning as ‘rightness’, as in a correct answer. Political correctness somehow negates or inverts correctness, but it’s not at all clear how this is so. I can only surmise that he thinks that something that’s correct ‘politically’ is actually incorrect or not correct. So the word ‘political’ must mean ‘not’. So then I’d have to wonder why Abbott ever became a politician. In any case, I’m left wondering how this odd term can apply to the matter at hand, which is whether to allow gay couples the freedom to marry as other couples do. The ‘political correctness’ question is an obscure and rather tedious semantic quibble, while same-sex marriage is a serious issuing affecting many peoples’ lives, so I won’t pursue the ‘political correctness’ gambit any further.

Abbott’s main point, presumably, is that same-sex marriage adversely affects religious freedom. So how, exactly, would the marriage of people who happen to be of the same gender affect religious freedom? The essential argument is that, since the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, for example, is opposed to same sex marriage, and homosexuality in general, individuals Catholics who happen to be homosexual, and who wish to marry their loved one and don’t wish to abandon their faith, may seek to use the law to force, or try to force, the Catholic Church to marry them. And of course this isn’t just a problem for Catholicism. The Anglican hierarchy tends to be more liberal, but we know that it isn’t uniformly so, and some segments of it are as arch as the most conservative Catholics. And then there’s Islam (and other religions). Of course it would be rare indeed to find practicing Moslems, here or elsewhere, who are openly gay and wanting to marry, but it’s likely that such people do exist, given humanity’s weird and wonderful diversity.

This is in fact an interesting conundrum. The website for marriage equality in Australia has this to say:

No religious institution can be forced to marry a lesbian or gay couple against their beliefs (in much the same way as certain religious bodies cannot be forced to marry people who are divorced).

This seems an overly confident assumption, since the issue has yet to be tested, and it surely will, as it is apparently being tested in the USA by gay couples.

A weaker point being made by the religious is that they will be persecuted for upholding the traditional view of marriage against the new law. But this might be said for anyone who holds a minority view. Clearly, when same-sex marriage law comes into being, it will be supported by the majority of Australians. Indeed it will become law largely because it’s supported by the majority, and the majority is likely to increase, though this is never guaranteed. People who hold the minority view will have to argue for it, and should expect others to argue against it. This isn’t persecution. I personally don’t think they have any strong arguments for their views, which clearly discriminate against homosexuals. Being called out for that discriminatory view, isn’t persecution IMHO.

Having said this, I agree with the conservative journalist Paul Kelly that same-sex marriage law inevitably pits church against state, and that the various religious groups’ freedom to discriminate against homosexuals is at stake. This is, in the west, a part of our growing secularisation against religions that are largely mired in outmoded social conventions. This clash has been going on for some time and is set to continue. The outcome, I think, is inevitable, but it will be a slow, painstaking process.

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2017 at 12:52 am

a bit more on cell cultures, cell mortality and patients’ rights

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Human connective tissue in culture, 500x. Image courtesy of Dr. Cecil Fox (photographer)/National Cancer Institute.

Canto: Well, we’ve followed up Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race with Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, which intersects with Wadman’s book in describing cell cultures and their value in modern medicine and genetics. So are ready to talk about all this again?

Jacinta: Yes, this book tells a compelling history of the Lacks family as well as a story of the ethics around human cell cultures, based on the HeLa cell line taken from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks in 1951, shortly before she died of cervical cancer.

Canto: A very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix, to be precise, though the tumour was misdiagnosed at the time.

Jacinta: Yes, her bodily state and her sufferings make for grim reading. And the cells were taken sans permission, in a pioneering era of almost no regulation and a great deal of dubious practice.

Canto: The wild west of cell and tissue culturology.

Jacinta: George Gey, the guy who ordered these cells to be taken, was a great pioneer in cancer and cell culture research, but he and others found it very difficult to keep human cells alive in vitro, so he was much surprised and delighted at his success with Henrietta’s tumour cells.

Canto: They were the first ever cells to live beyond the Hayflick limit, though that limit wasn’t spelt out by Hayflick until 1961.

Jacinta: And wasn’t accepted for decades after that. And the reason for their apparent immortality, a rare thing in untreated cells, was their cancerous nature. Human cancer cells contain an enzyme known as telomerase, which rebuilds the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. Normally these telomeres, often described as like the protective caps at the ends of shoelaces, shorten and so become less protective with each cell division.

Canto: So if we could stop cancer cells from producing telomerase, you’d stop all that metastasising…

Jacinta: Sounds easy-peasy. And if we could introduce telomerase into non-cancerous cells we could all live forever.

Canto: Bet they haven’t thought of that one. So if this cell line was cancerous, how could they be of so much value? How could they be of any use at all, since the aim, I thought, was to produce ‘clean’ cells, like the WI-38 cells Hayflick produced ten years later? Remember how they had so many problems with monkey cells, which were full of viruses?

Jacinta: Well, forget viruses for the moment, the exciting thing about the HeLa cells was that they stayed alive and multiplied, which was rare, and so they could be experimented on in a variety of ways.

Canto: But did they use the cells for vaccines? The 1954 Salk polio vaccine was tested using these cells. How can you do this with cancerous cells?

Jacinta: Well it was the suitability of these cells for mass-production that made them ideal for test-driving the Salk vaccine, and of course their prolific nature was tied to their cancerous nature – Henrietta’s cancer seemed to be horribly fast-spreading, it was just about everywhere inside her at her death. Her cancer was caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and I’ve read that this may have had something to do with their prolific nature. She also had syphillis, likely contracted from her philandering husband, and this suppresses the immune system, allowing the cancer cells to multiply more rapidly. But even though they were cancer cells they shared many of the properties of normal cells, including the production of proteins and susceptibility to bacterial and especially viral infections. Of course you would never inject HeLa cells into humans, but their malignancy is an advantage in that you get the results of say, viral infection of cells as they reproduce, much more quickly than with normal cells, because of their reproductive rate. It seems old George Gey hit the jackpot with them, though he never made any more money out of them than the Lackses did.

Canto: They initially used rhesus monkey cells to test their antibody levels in response to Salk’s killed polio virus, but they were too hard to get and too expensive, and the HeLa cells were an excellent alternative because they were easily infected by the virus… and they reproduced with unprecedented alacrity.

The malignancy of immortality (or vice versa). A HeLa cell splitting into two new cells. The green spots are chromosomes. Courtesy Paul D. Andrews)

Jacinta: Yes, that’s to say, they readily produced antibodies, and so could be experimented on to produce the level of antibodies to create immunity. But growing cell cultures in vitro and maintaining them in a viable state, that’s been a decades-long learning process. Tissue culture these days is big business, which has led to the murky ethical questions about tissue ownership that Skloot refers to at the end of her book.

Canto: Yes but I for one am quite clear about that issue. I’m more than happy for researchers to use any tissue that comes from, say, a biopsy done on me. Is that tissue mine, when it’s removed from my body?

Jacinta: Well, is it? Think of locks of hair kept from a loved one – something that happens a few times in Skloot’s book. Wouldn’t you be moved by a lock of hair that you knew came from someone you loved but who was no longer around? Wouldn’t you feel you had hold of a part of her? Not just a memory of her?

Canto: Interesting. I think I’d be in two minds about it. I’d think, yes, this is her hair, a small part of her, and that would bring all the emotion of identity with it. But then, what I know about science and cells tells me this is just hair, it’s not what makes her her. It’s nowhere near it. Our hair is discarded all the time.

Jacinta: If you had some of her brain cells? Or heart tissue haha?

Canto: Nothing but ultra-ultra minuscule parts of the whole. And essentially meaningless when disconnected from that whole. But this misses the point that the value of this tissue for research outweighs by far, to me at any rate, the sentimental value that you’re talking about.

Jacinta: But for some people, and some cultures, the intactness of the human entity, after death say, is of deep-rooted significance. Are you not prepared to respect that?

Canto: But we slough off our trillions of cells all the time. Even as a kid I was told we replace our cells every seven years. Of course it’s much more varied and complicated than that, but the general point of constant renewal is true.

Jacinta: Yes but they’re your cells, with your DNA in them, nobody else’s.

Canto: Well people are prepared to be operated on, which inevitably kills or removes cells, and in doing so they give themselves up to experts in healing their bodies and often saving their lives, so it would seem to me pretty mean-spirited not to allow those experts to make use of what’s removed, which is of no obvious use to them.

Jacinta: I think you have a good argument there, but what if these mad scientists use your cells for some nefarious purpose?

Canto: Well, call me a trusting soul, but why would they do that? And what nefarious purpose could they use them for?

Jacinta: Well it mightn’t even be nefarious. With the modern commercialisation of cell and gene technology, they might find your tissue perfect for developing something patentable, out of which they make shitloads of money while preventing independent research on the tissue, so using your cells in a way that you might strongly disapprove of. But you wouldn’t have the slightest say, as things stand today. Rebecca Skloot describes examples of this kind in the Afterword to her book. There’s been a raging debate about commercialisation and gene patents and patients’ rights for some time now in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, with scientists and other stakeholders ranged along the spectrum. In fact, these are the last words of Skloot’s book, published in 2010:

2009: More than 150,000 scientists join the American Civil Liberties Union and breast cancer patients in suing Myriad Genetics over its breast-cancer gene patents. The suit claims that the practice of gene patenting violates patent law and has inhibited scientific research.

Canto: Right. As her investigations reveal, it’s not just about patients wanting a share of the loot from research on their cells, and so using the courts to bog everything down and hinder that research, it’s often about researchers themselves wanting to cash in, and patients joining with other researchers to try to free up the system for the common good. So how’s the Myriad Genetics case going, and how’s the situation regarding patient rights in this field, several years on?References

Jacinta: Well in the case of Myriad, it was all highly complex and litigious, with suits and countersuits, which the company mostly lost, in particular in a landmark (and unanimous) Supreme Court decision of 2013, in which they found that ‘merely isolating genes that are found in nature [in this case the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes] does not make them patentable’. But of course this wasn’t so much about patients’ rights in the material that was once part of their bodies. It’s not all about money – though much of it is, and if you don’t want the money landing in lawyers’ pockets, the best thing is to have clear guidelines, disclosure, and fully developed and complex consent procedures. My impression from doing a fairly shallow dive on the issues is that we’re a long way from sorting this out, in an increasingly complex and lucrative field. Our own federal government’s NHMRC has a booklet out, available on PDF, called ‘Ethics and the exchange and commercialisation of products derived from human tissue: background and issues’, which is already six years old, but I don’t see anything in the legislative pipeline.

Canto: Looks like an issue to be followed up, if we have the stomach for it.

Jacinta: It pays to be informed, that’s one obvious take-away from all this.

References
Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010
Meredith Wadman, The vaccine race, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 pm