Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Update on Nebraska

In my most recent blog I wrote about the possibility that the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska might vote in a policy that would place severe restrictions on the range of embryonic stem cell research that could be conducted within the university. According to a news item published on November 25 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the board did not have sufficient votes to carry the policy forward:

“University of Nebraska Votes Against Changing Policies on Stem Cell Research. The University of Nebraska's Board of Regents voted against changing its existing policy governing research on embryonic stem cells, a move that will allow the university to continue research on stem cell lines in accordance with the new NIH guidelines. A resolution was proposed that would have restricted the campus policy to allow only research on the cell lines that were approved under the 2001 policy issued by former President Bush. The eight-member Board voted 4-4, and since a majority of votes is required to pass a resolution, the proposed change was defeated. AAAS issued a letter to the University's President and Board of Regents emphasizing its support for human embryonic stem cell research conducted with appropriate ethical guidelines.”

The Board's decision is, I suppose, something of a victory, but the closeness of the vote demonstrates how divided the Board was on the matter. I think of it as more of a reprieve than a victory. Those who would like to force their constructions of what is right and wrong on the rest of us will not give up on their efforts, not in Nebraska or elsewhere. The only defense for those who value intellectual freedom, and an open, pluralistic society in which to practice it, is to keep working on communicating their core values as vigorously as possible. If we want free choice within reasonable societally accepted boundaries, there is no real alternative to pushing back against extremism while engaging with others who may have differing viewpoints but seek a satisfying framework for making social policy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Religion and Scientific Autonomy

When we determine whether we can trust someone, a prime consideration is whether that person is independent of external influences that might affect judgment or testimony. In a similar way, a core element in science’s claim to be a socially productive source of knowledge of the natural world is that it has autonomy . In science autonomy operates at different levels, from the freedom of the individual scientist to choose research goals and methods of pursuing them to the independence of the scientific establishment as a whole from interference from government or other powerful influence groups. This does not mean that there are no constraints on scientists. A host of laws and norms of good practice operate to prohibit certain kinds of research; for example, research with the potential for harming human subjects, or that would endanger anyone in the vicinity of a research facility. These are motivated by moral and ethical standards of the broadest kind, the same sorts of constraints that apply to people and organizations generally.

As I have explained in the book Imperfect Oracle, science frequently comes into conflict with other social sectors because it challenges older traditional understandings. These conflicts are nowhere more evident than in the United States, in science’s contentious encounters with conservative Christian groups. Here the issue that comes to the fore is whether certain kinds of research should be constrained because they are deemed contrary to the religious dogmas of a particular group of people. One of the hot topics over the past several years has been embryonic stem cell research. Christian conservatives, in concert with the Catholic Church, have campaigned against the use of embryonic stem cells, whatever the source from which they have been obtained, on the grounds that such cells literally constitute a human life, and their destruction would be a violation of God’s law.

The latest chapter in this seemingly endless saga is centered in Nebraska, where the extreme right-to-lifers have taken a new tack: get opponents of embryonic stem cell research elected to the University’s board of regents. A majority of such board members there could pass a ruling that restricts research on embryonic stem cells to the limited list approved years ago by President George W. Bush. The policies related to stem cell research were greatly liberalized by the Obama administration in Executive Order 13505. Thus the policy that may be put into place by the Board of Regents would move the University of Nebraska back to the dark ages of stem cell research. Actually, no embryos would be destroyed at the University of Nebraska in any case; cell lines that are, or would be, used were developed elsewhere and copied cells would be employed. That, however, still causes problems for those who advocate forbidding research with such materials.

The continuing controversy over the use of stem cells has led to formation of such organizations as The Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research. These people claim not to be opposed to science, or even to stem cell research; they just want it done on their terms. They are free with their advice that scientists simply focus on adult stem cells. They point to recent work that has shown that adult stem cells can be reprogrammed so that they mimic the properties of embryonic stem cells. But what qualifications do these people have for advising scientists on how best to carry out their work? Reprogramming of adult stem cells is in its infancy, and there are many impediments to its general application. There is no assurance that it will ever constitute a substitute for work with embryonic stem cells. Even setting that aside, however, the point is that science cannot operate effectively when it is confined by an entity outside science on grounds that have nothing to do with the scientific merits of the work.

Science’s autonomy, its capacity to move in directions dictated by scientific considerations, is constrained in this and related instances because one particular social group frames the work in its own extra-scientific terms, and wants to hold the rest of society hostage to its judgments. The public seems dismayingly willing to tolerate such extremism. I hope, however, that it will become increasingly evident that most of us are the losers when the extremists win; things might then change. Society is not well-served by outmoded ways of thinking based on religious doctrines tailored by church authorities in other eras for their own dubious reasons. One does not have to become an atheist or agnostic to conclude that organized religion has, for the most part, become a bad thing for society. Like other addictions, however, it seems to be a hard habit to break.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Weather, Climate and Global Warming

In my most recent blog I made mention of the common fallacy of drawing conclusions about the reality of global climate change from observations of local weather. Climate change denialists like to bring up the cold, wet summer or an unusually heavy snowfall during winter as evidence against global warming. But, as I pointed out, weather and climate must be understood differently. Weather is highly changeable on a day-to-day basis. Climate can also vary, but it does so on much longer time scales. It is quite possible that in a given year some large scale measure of climate, such as hurricane intensity, or rainfall over a large area, will move in opposition to a longer scale trend. But for the most part, changes occurring over a period of time such as a year will tend to show behavior that follows the long term trends.

I was therefore pleased to see the piece in this Sunday’s New York Times by Andrew Revkin that deals with the trends in record high and low temperatures across the United States over recent time. The data illustrate nicely that while record highs and lows continue to occur, the number of record high temperatures is increasing year by year, whereas the number of record lows is decreasing. The video in the piece, by Gerald Meehl, provides a nice explanation of what is going on.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Changing minds about climate change

One scientific question that has relevance for every person on the planet is whether the global climate is changing in response to human activities. The major causative agents of the change, if indeed there is change, are the so-called greenhouse gases. Some of them, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are naturally occurring components of the atmosphere, but humans have caused their concentrations to increase greatly. Other greenhouse gases are substance that humans have learned to make and use for various purposes. These include the so-called chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons.

Not everyone is convinced that human activities are the driving force for some of the climate changes we have been seeing in recent years, or that the scientific models for climate reliably predict what may happen in the future if we continue to consume fossil fuels and add increasing amounts of other greenhouse gases such as methane to the atmosphere. In one sense this is not entirely surprising, because climate is not a well-defined entity, not easily described in terms of just a few critical measurements. Weather, something that happens at the local level, and climate, which extends over large regions and ultimately to the entire planet, are easily confused in many peoples’ minds. Although seasonal weather changes from one year to the next are not reliable indicators of climate change, they are frequently brought into discussions as though they were. Thus, a cold spring in the northwestern states of the United States are taken by many as evidence that global warming is not occurring. It seems that nearly everyone is an expert of some sort on climate. Political entertainers such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who have not a shred of expertise, don’t hesitate to declare that global warming is a massive hoax perpetrated by an establishment that wants to use it as a pretext for sinister incursions into private rights and freedoms.

This is a big topic, because if climate changes are occurring as a result of human activities to date, those changes will accelerate greatly over the next few decades as more and more greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. I need not rehearse here again, as I have in earlier blogs, the vast range of studies performed by scientists working in many different disciplines, and in a host of environments all over the planet, to attempt to learn about past climates and the changes occurring now in our own climate. Those studies have all gone into formation of the successive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the information collected there is continually updated as new evidence is produced. All of this scientific work, and the inferences drawn from it by the best minds working in all the areas of science related to climate change, have led to the conclusion that the climate is indeed changing as a result of human activities, and that the changes are accelerating. For example, the Greenland ice mass is decreasing; the latest evidence is that the loss is accelerating.

This past March, a group of about 2000 climate scientists gathered in Copenhagen to assess the current views on climate change. Because the group was not brought together under the auspices of the IPCC or any other single governmental agency, participating scientists were more free to offer frank appraisals and prescriptive statements. Many factors that bode ill for our prospects were either not considered in the IPCC report or were very conservatively estimated. For example, it is only now becoming evident that permafrost holds vast amounts of carbon that is becoming “unlocked” as the permafrost warms. The upshot is that the prospects look worse than the projections of the IPCC would lead one to expect.

The evidence for global warming and the role of human activities in the process, is at this point overwhelming. One way of putting this is that there is a strong consensus in the scientific community on these matters, of the same sort that exists with respect to many widely held bodies of evidence in chemistry, physics, genetics, and other branches of science. The National Academies of Science have produced a very nice video, America’s Climate Choices, that reveals the degree of consensus that obtains in the scientific world, and describes the organization of groups of experts that are being convened to assist the government in addressing the challenges that lie ahead. I urge you to watch this, to sense how deep and widely felt are the views of outstanding scientists and other citizens on this matter. Yet there are scientists, mostly without credentials in any of the relevant areas of science, and lacking acceptable scientific evidence that contravenes the current understanding, who continue to reject the consensual scientific position. Some seem to think it is a conspiracy of some kind, an attempt to somehow put something over on society. I can understand how some politicians, entertainers, entrenched interest groups such as those representing certain segments of the energy industry and the like, might find it convenient to resist the existing scientific evidence, but what is going on in the heads of deniers who have a supposedly scientific training? It must have to do with a deep-seated unease with the implications of greater governmental oversight as society comes to grip with the steps that must be be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time begin to deal with mitigating global warming effects.

In a letter published in a recent issue of Chemical and Engineering News a writer reluctantly seems to agree that Earth’s climate is getting warmer, though he cites the low spring temperatures in the northeast as evidence that might contradict the global warming hypothesis (!). But he thinks that “blaming it (global warming) on human activities seems to be speculative.” What blows my mind is that this person can’t seem to imagine that the virtual army of scientists working on this problem would not have held this very question at the fore in all their work! What does that say about this person’s understanding of how science works? Apparently the means by which science establishes its epistemic authority, within the scientific community and outside it, is not clear to some scientists. We have a long way to go.