Today, President Obama signed a bill lifting the Bush restrictions on stem cell research. You really must go listen to his speech on the occasion — he seems to get what scientific research is all about. Man, it’s been a long eight years, and oh is it wonderfully good to hear an eloquent defense of scientific research from our president, for a change.
The ugly little goblins of the Bush years still plague us, though; compare the uplifting message of knowledge from Obama with this fundamentally fallacious opinion piece from the carnie barker of junk science, Steven Milloy. And by “fundamentally fallacious”, I mean that it’s problems are far deeper than his usual slithery tweaking of the facts to misrepresent the evidence and the science — I mean that right at the core of Milloy is an absolute lack of comprehension of the very nature of science, and it’s right there, exposed and naked and hideous.
His problem? He thinks his ignorance of the field is an accurate picture, and he thinks science ought to be more like a vending machine: put in your nickel, and the bubble gum you wanted pops out.
Keep in mind that, although President Bush limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to a few existing stem cell colonies, he did not make such research illegal. In fact, embryonic stem cell research has been funded with both private funding and state funding — not to mention that scientists around the world have been engaging in embryonic stem cell research. The results? Nothing notable has occurred in embryonic stem cell research other than the scientific fraud committed by the infamous South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk.
There is so much wrong with that paragraph. Woo-Suk was a fraud; just because one or a few corrupt individuals abuse the system is not grounds for damning all of the research. He’s also using Woo-Suk as a smokescreen to hide the colossal lie he’s peddling, that nothing notable has occurred in stem cell research. It’s a very sneaky strategy — he’s been a cheerleader for an administration that has discouraged stem cell work, driving many researchers to leave the country to continue the research, or to drop it and continue work in a different field that has the promise of continuing support. You don’t get to hobble the horse and then complain that it hasn’t won any races!
But of course significant advances have been made in this line of research, it’s just that Milloy isn’t competent to know about them, let alone report on them. As one example, we’ve made progress in understanding the triggers that can induce the stem cell state, work that lays the foundation for turning somatic cells into new tissues at will. This is the kind of work that the anti-stem-cell Luddites want scientists to do, but they ignore the fact that it depends on understanding the stem cell state.
But the key problem in Milloy’s article is more than just his cocky ignorance: it’s his failure to understand how science works. He keeps on harping on how nobody has found a “cure” for anything yet, but you don’t do science with the immediate goal of finding cures! The purpose of this research is to increase our understanding of how cells work to build tissues, not to poof “cures” into existence.
If the US pours hundreds of millions of dollars into stem cell research, and the scientists come back a decade later and say stem cells aren’t the answer any more, it’s new therapy X that they’ve discovered, it isn’t a failure. It means we’ve learned something we wouldn’t have known without doing it, that we’ve uncovered wonderful new surprises, and that through it all, we’ve learned more of the basics of how biology works. We don’t know what we’re going to find; if we did, it wouldn’t be research.
But wait! Milloy hasn’t quite plumbed the depths of absurdity yet. That’s here, in this paragraph, in which he compares stem cell and cancer research and declares them both failures.
What’s this got to do with embryonic stem cell research? Everything. Practically speaking, curing cancer should be a far easier mission to accomplish since what’s involved is essentially limited to the containment and destruction of cancer cells. But so far, scientists can’t even really do that.
Yes, he really wrote that. Let’s rephrase it for him. “Ending terrorism should be a far easier mission to accomplish since what’s involved is essentially limited to the containment and destruction of terrorists.” “Controlling crime should be a far easier mission to accomplish since what’s involved is essentially limited to the containment of criminals.” “Ending global warming should be a far easier mission to accomplish since what’s involved is essentially limited to the containment and destruction of carbon dioxide.” Can he possibly trivialize the problem any more?
Cancer is a whole collection of diseases with multiple causes. It is not at all easy. We have decades of incredibly useful research into the regulation of cellular processes that has been driven by the long term goal of “curing” cancer, but along the way has increased our understanding of biology. There is no magic pill, and there never will be — but what we have is a strong foundation for plunging deeper into the mechanisms. There are no promises of insta-cures, but there is a track record of increased knowledge. How would we know what we know of cell cycle regulation, apoptosis, and signal transduction in multicellular animals without support for cancer research?
With embryonic stem cell research, not only would researchers have to figure out how to harness the developmental potential of embryonic stem cells (if that is even possible) but they would also have to figure out how to control and turn-off the embryonic stem cells since each one is a potential cancer-causing agent. All this is a tall order — and private investors know it.
Yes, we would like to harness the developmental potential of embryonic stem cells. We would like to be able to turn cell fates on and off. Milloy doesn’t even seem to be aware that what he calls compounding problems is an opportunity for synergy — learning more about developmental regulation can help us solve problems in cancer, and learning more about the de- and re-differentiation of cancer cells can help us better understand how to switch developmental fates.
What, exactly, is his answer? All he’s got so far is complaints that these are really hard problems in biology, and we haven’t ladled out answers simple enough for him to understand. These are hard problems, which is one of the things that makes them so appealing to scientists — cracking them will open many new doors to progress. Milloy seems to think this is a reason to shut down further questioning. I say it’s the best reason to work harder.
I’m pleased to see that Obama is on my side, and not Milloy’s. Let’s hope there are never again dark days when anti-science drones of the far right have any power over progress, because it seems that all they ever want to do is suppress it.