Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


Sarah Palin knows nothing of science

Fruit Fly Brain

Fruit Fly Brain (credit Pamela Mitchell)

In one of the single most maddening, ignorant, unfathomably idiotic statements (out of many) I have heard spew through Sarah Palin’s lips, the candidate for the second highest position in the free world uttered a single phrase today that could utterly destroy the progress of medicine and scientific understanding.

In her very first policy speech, Palin talked about autism and disabilities (video below). She urged that

“For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference.”

This is very true. And where does this information and the ability for early identification come from? Scientific research. Unfortunately, she went on to say

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”

When I heard this issue forth from my T.V. I literally could not believe what I had just heard. I had to rewind my TiVo just to make sure. I write now filled with more anger at the the current state of this union than I have felt in some time (albeit, anger cut with a good dose of hope).

Why the anger, you say? What’s wrong with her statement, you ask?

This statement of “public policy” exhibits an almost unbelievable level of the ignorance of Palin and those that support her – and on multiple levels.

Drosophila melanogaster

Drosophila melanogaster

#1. The fruit fly (Drosophila) has probably been the single most important organism for the study of genetics for over a century now. Almost everything we know about genetics, development, cell biology, neuroscience, and every other field of biology has strong roots in previous and current work on Drosophila. The fruit fly is one of a small handful of “standard model organisms” used by thousands of scientists across the world to learn how our bodies, organs, genes, and proteins work. Most of what we know about how a single fertilized cell becomes the amazingly complex beings we are comes from studies initially done in Drosophila. Vast amounts of our understanding of the brain (and brain disorders, diseases, and defects) also come from initial studies in fruit flies.

In fact, recent research from my own graduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on fruit fly brains has had an impact on the understanding of autism and has boosted autism research:

“[S]cientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine have shown that a protein called neurexin is required for..nerve cell connections to form and function correctly. The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism.”

To decry research in [condescending and amazed tone] “the fruit fly” is a testament to the true idiocy of this woman and to the failure of our public education system. In fact, her own father, Chuck Heath, was a biology teacher – obviously a complete failure of a biology teacher.

#2. The fact that she threw in “in Paris, France” represents yet another tactic to pander to the “patriotic,” French-hating (remember Freedom Fries?) Right. It also represents another misunderstanding of the nature of science in the modern world. You see, science knows no borders. It doesn’t matter where the research happens. The results all end up in the same place – in our collective database of scientific knowledge.

In my own research, both current and past, my work on heart and brain development has been based on, and done in collaboration with, other scientists all over the world. Some of my current research is based on results from a group in Korea. Other projects were based on studies from a consortium of scientists from Canada to China to Australia.

Regardless of where the research is done, it all contributes to the “public good” and it all feeds into the knowledge of our biological existence, into the state of our medical technology, and into our mental and body health.

I’ve been fuming ever since hearing her comments tonight. I am now happy to say that both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are currently covering this story quite well on MSNBC. To quote Richard Wolffe on Olbermann's Countdown, this is one of her most “mindless, ignorant, uninformed, comments” yet.  I hope I don't need to spell out for you why having someone like this in the number 2 (or God forbid, number 1) position in the country will harm science and scientific undertanding in this country.

I imagine the science blogosphere will be alight with posts about this, hopefully from some actual Drosophila scientists, and I will update this post with their links as they come along (let me know if you want your blog post listed).

(Note: Please Digg this below, or use whatever bookmark sharing site you prefer - we need as many people to see this issue as possible).

Update: Welcome visitors from AmericaBlog! You may also enjoy this image.

Update 2: For those of you who understand that the details of the earmark (which I don't think Palin even had a clue about) actually deals with a different species of fruit fly (Olive Fruit Fly), see the comments section. Yes I am very well aware of this, but it has no bearing on her comment, apparent ignorance, and flippant dismissal of research because it deals with silly-sounding fruit flies. More: PZ Myers at Pharyngula blasts the claim that she "wasn't disparaging all research into fruit flies, but only one specific earmark for studying agricultural pests."

Other coverage of Palin's scientific ignorance:

Excellent post at Reasoning the Reasons: Does She Not Know? Or Does She Not Care to Know?

Think Progress: Memo To Palin: Fruit Fly Research Has Led To Advances In Understanding Autism

Daily Kos: Sarah Does Science

Blue Herald: Olbermann and Wolffe Discuss Palin's Mindlessness

The great PZ at Pharyngula: Sarah Palin: Ignorant and Anti-Science, Losing the Sense of the Argument

My Point Exactly: Science, schmience, part 2

Google Blog List of Articles on this issue


Democrats, Religion, and Faith-Based Initiatives

Obama "loves" Jesus

Today in his Pharyngula blog, PZ Myers went off on Democrats for highlighting their commitment to religion and faith and the compassionate accomplishments faith-based groups can make in the world.

Let me first say that in essence, and in principle, I am in complete agreement with PZ. Liberals, progressives, and the Democratic party that we liberals, in general, vote for would serve in an ideal world as the pusher of the rational, scientific, and secular agenda. Instead, what we have seen with Barack Obama is a re-cooption of the Christian and evangelical vote – or at least an attempt to get those voters back – by reemphasizing the Democratic Parties Christian roots.

However, from purely a practical standpoint I think this is the only way we can ever hope to have our government even begin to govern in the progressive way we think it should. Before I expound upon this, I want to mention Obama’s Faith-Based Initiatives plan.

Obama’s Faith-Based Initiatives
When I first heard that Obama wanted to expand Bush’s Faith-based initiatives, I was initially disgusted – for about thirty seconds. The time of disgust was so short because I learned what he really wanted to do. I found out about it by listening to his speech. In it, what he basically says is that the Faith-Based Initiatives were never run properly – they were only a photo-op for Bush to continue to receive evangelical support. Obama, on the other hand wants to rebuild the initiaives. He wants to support compassionate work and community service that these religion-backed organizations claim to want to work for. That’s fine with me for this reason:

“I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century…

…First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.”

He’s essentially tearing down the faith-based initiatives and instead building secular-based initiatives, with the religious folks doing the work. Works for me. Personally, I could care less what your beliefs are if your focusing on helping others, regardless of their own faiths. If religion must exist – that’s the direction that I think it needs to focus its efforts. Personally, I think this was a genius move on Obama’s part for the reasons below.

Democratic Christianity
Based on everything I’ve read of Obama, I don’t believe that he is in reality a Christian. Everything about him (except what he actually says on the subject) screams agnostic. But he knows that this is a Christian nation (about 75%). You CANNOT get elected President if you are not Christian or at least deeply religious. So he has spent years crafting his Christian beliefs, developing his Jesus cred. And I’m glad he did.

Only by reclaiming the Christian vote can progressives ever hope to reshape this country. Thus, by highlighting the commitment and accomplishments of the Faithful within the Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention, the Party may yet recapture those religious votes (or at least a small proportion of them).

Once we get more progressives in place, we can fix this fucked up educational system we have (No Child Left Behind? Don’t even get me started). Only by actually getting rational-minded people into office can we hope to erase the anti-intellectual blanket that has fallen over this country. It may be slow – or it may not happen at all – but you can be guaranteed that the Republican party cares not an ounce about education on true science, intellectualism, and reason.

Thus, the Democrats must, at minimum, act Christian. They must, as Obama has done many many times, proclaim that they have accepted Jesus Christ into a personal relationship. Some may believe it – others may do it for political reasons. But there is no doubt that this is absolutely necessary.

It would be nice to maintain my principles and say “no – we should not put faith and religion on a pedestal – we must not even allow it place within our politics.” But I feel this is naive (Note: I do NOT mean to imply that PZ Myers is naive - we absolutely NEED people like PZ in this world and in this debate - He understands all this much better than I, I'm sure. But he honorably sticks to his principles). Most adults in this country are too indoctrinated to ever be swayed with rhetoric. Most don’t even know what science really is. Consider the fact that somewhere between 50 to 70% of this country believes God had a direct hand in our own creation (depending on the poll), while a reciprocal percentage believes in evolution. Do you really expect that any of these people will vote for a self-proclaimed atheist?

This is obviously not a new argument. Everyone knows (everyone who cares anyway) that every President we’ve had has been Christian (at least in the public eye). Our only hope is to get our people into office by whatever means necessary, and hope we can train the next generation to use their brains properly.

Side Note: Some Christians may read my argument and say "Oh, so Democrats are only fake Christian." To that I would respond that to a large degree, most of the truly Christian Democrats I know walk alot closer to the line Jesus walked than most Republicans I know. Just take our Commander in Chief for example. I don't believe for one femtosecond that he was ever "born again". He, and every other publicly visible Christian in his administration act about as far from the actual teachings of Christ that you can get. How many people have died in Iraq now? Somewhere between 30,000 and 150,000? Oh that's right - according to Gen. Tommy Franks this administration doesn't "do body counts." And it is a well known fact that Karl Rove orchestrated his "brilliant" scheme to get the religious right behind Bush. This is why Democrats should continue with the course they are on with regards to religion. Bush and Rove already proved that Christian voters, by and large, are incredibly gullible.


You thought Bush was a leader Jesus would vote for?


Loss of Truth: How the Government is Killing Science

Everyday lately, while listening to the news and watching the world around us disintegrate into war, chaos and malcontent, I see and feel the deception pervading the information fed to us by our government and media outlets. It seriously sickens me. This PDF is a report put out by Rep. Henry A. Waxman to Congress listing many of the incomprehensible (and I would call downright evil) manipulations, lies, and dictatorial eliminations of truth the Bush Administration has committed in obvious contempt of the American people. This administration is single-handedly destroying science in America.

And by science I simply mean the basic human understanding of the reality around us (not to be confused with technology which is the application of scientific knowledge). Many of you likely agree with the administration's positions on some of the key issues being discussed such as embryonic stem cell research, and understandably so. This article does not focus on arguing the issues themselves but mainly focuses on exactly when where and how the Bush administration lied or manipulated (or sometimes even completely falsified data). I do not believe any American can truly read these acts of manipulation and falsification and not feel betrayed by the folks supposedly working for our benefit, regardless of your political position. I guarantee you will be shocked by what you read.

So please at least read the summary at the beginning of the article if you don't care for the details, and pass this along if you feel as upset as I do.

I would also like to point out that almost all of the sciences are being negatively affected by this administration including my own lab. We are doing research to understand how the human body creates a heart. The potential benefits to humanity are obvious considering 1 out of every 100 are born with a heart defect. Unfortunately we and many other labs are losing much of our funding due to Bush's slashing of the science budget (to pay for his war).

I know most of you probably couldn't care less what I think about the Bush administration's science policies. But I feel that by trying to reach as many as possible, I am least doing what I can to affect the world around me. I think it would be unpatriotic of me not to expose as many Americans as possible to the lies and deceit of this administration.

And no matter what "issues" you may agree or disagree with the administration on, NOTHING excuses them from feeding us patently false and manipulated information to achieve their ideological goals.