Creationism: A Worldwide Phenomenon?

I was rather shocked today to see this in my Scientific American newsfeed: Science and Archaeopteryx Overcome Creationism in South Korea, by Soo Bin Park (reprinted from a Nature publication). I had no clue classroom rejection of evolution in favor of creationism is a world-wide phenomenon! I figured it was something that stubborn ultra-Christians clung to only in the US. I suppose that’s just my Americentric mind at work again. I wonder how wide-spread this problem is?

This issue reminds me of a forum conversation that’s been going on at my favorite book-social-network LibraryThing. We’ve been discussing the movement of some parents to decline immunization for their children–for fear of unproven (and unlikely) threats like the autism-due-to-vaccination scare. These parents fail to appreciate the pain and suffering and endless fear of their parents’ parents during epidemics such as for polio in the early 20th century. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were! By not vaccinating their children, these people are not only risking the health of their own children, they’re risking the health of others’ children AND the health of our already-fragile medical system here in the US. 

Furthermore, there is a discouraging trend in the US for ultra-conservatives to take an anti-science stance. They want our kids to be world leaders in the classroom, but they also want them to be taught that evolution and global warming are “just theories” for which there is scanty evidence. Furthermore, they often approve of huge funding cuts for scientific research. Although I’ve posted a couple of times about studies where I asked “really? my tax dollars paid for that?!” I think funding for scientific research is an investment that the US needs to make if we want to continue as a world power. If we don’t stoke the fire, it’s going to die. I have personally witnessed the changes that have occurred in academia due to the funding lapses during the Bush administration, and the temporary relief that the Obama administration provided. Unfortunately, this relief came too late and academic (rather than for-profit) scientific research is on the decline. It’s harder and harder for professors to get tenure, so more and more of them enter “industry,” where the “evil” drug companies take over their souls. 😉 

I don’t know what the right solution is, but we mustn’t let academic science research go on a decline. We must nip the anti-science movement in the bud before it impacts our global position (and the quality of our health system) irrevocably. 

I am also reminded of this article in the Scientific American newsfeed: Obama and Romney Tackle 14 Top Science Questions. Romney isn’t as supportive of science as I’d wish, but at least he’s not leaning too far in the anti-science direction. There’s a (very small) blessing. I DID get a chuckle about how Romney made almost all of his answers about how Obama is a failure, whereas Obama actually focused on the questions at hand. 

Culture of blame: how we perceive certain diseases

In her article Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer” [1], Linda Geddes describes the heart-breaking struggle of a non-smoking mother-of-two against the ravages of lung cancer. The purpose of the article was to point out the disparity between research funding and number of deaths for the various cancer types. Leukemia and breast cancer draw from huge sources of public and private funds, receiving much more than their deaths : research-dollars share. There are more deaths from lung cancer than from breast cancer or leukemia, but the funding for lung cancer research is pathetically small. Part of the reason for this is that many family physicians view lung cancer as untreatable–a diagnosis of death–so why fund research into an untreatable disease? But, after all, how are we to learn how to treat the disease without research? And how shall we perform research without funding? 

The article suggests another alarming reason for this funding disparity as well: many people, consciously or unconsciously, believe that lung cancer is the fault of the victim. If they hadn’t smoked, after all, would they be in this situation? Shame on them! And they’re endangering us with their second-hand smoke as well! But what about non-smokers who get lung cancer? (After all, that second-hand smoke is going somewhere, isn’t it?) And what right do we have to blame the victim of a disease, anyway? Is a person’s death less tragic because he was a smoker? Trust me, I fall prey to those adverts of children with leukemia…I want to send them money, too. But does our culture of blame induce us to spend money on those we consider “deserving” but not on the “undeserving?” Are we ok with that? 

I think a good example of our society (and the world) overcoming a prejudice against a culture-of-blame disease is our relative success with suppressing the dreaded AIDS epidemic. Many a politically-incorrect statement about AIDS victims was bandied about when I was younger…but now, I think, those negative connotations are mostly remembered only by older members of society. And although we haven’t successfully “cured” or fully protected against AIDS, we can now suppress it with anti-viral drugs–the result of well-spent research funding. Perhaps we can take a good lesson from our success with AIDS. Perhaps we can see lung cancer for what it is–a tragic disease that steals the lives of tens of thousands of people in the US every year*. Perhaps we can bring a halt to our culture of blame.

Geddes, Linda: Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer. New Scientist issue 2871. 28Jun, 2012.

*This number was 35,000 deaths in the UK in 2010 according to Geddes’ article.

Scientific Funding: Where do we draw the line?

Tall, Dark and Stable*, an article in the science and technology section of The Economist ed. July 14 – 20, 2012, discusses a study by David Kille, Amanda Forest, and Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo, Canada. This team took 47 romantically unattached undergraduates and set half of them on a slightly unstable chair next to a slightly unstable table; the other half sat at identical, though stable, furnishings. They were then given a survey evaluating the perceived stability of various celebrity relationships. The wonky-chaired students perceived others’ relationships as less stable than the straight-chaired students did. Furthermore, the wonky-chaired students valued “stable” qualities in potential partners (like being funny or trustworthy) more than “unstable” qualities (like spontaneity and adventurousness). So, apparently, sitting on wonky furniture makes you value stability while enhancing paranoia (i.e. reducing their perception of stability)? 

I was unfortunately unable to find this study in Psychological Science, the journal it will be published in, so I can’t evaluate their scientific methods. But I CAN say that I am generally pretty skeptical of such experiments. I’m sure their data turned out exactly as they said it did, but is it repeatable with another set of students from another place? Is it repeatable with non-student volunteers? Did they balance people’s opinions out by giving the survey before and after placement on the wonky chair?

Furthermore, this article in The Economist mentions (without reference to the actual study) that people who are sitting in chairs leaning slightly to the left tend to be more receptive to liberal ideas. REALLY?! You mean Obama could rig the election by sending out his supporters on “night patrol” to break into people’s homes and sandpaper off a couple millimeters on the left of their chairs? Do right-leaning chairs make people more conservative? I see a huge scandal in the making.

In my search for Kille’s study in Psychology Today, I found another study by him: When Social Networking is Not Working (Psychological Science March 2012 vol. 23 no. 3 295-302). In this study, they were trying to determine whether social networks like Facebook were generally beneficial to people with low self-esteem–people who normally feel inhibited about providing personal information, and who therefore have unfulfilled social lives. They found that people with low self esteems generally posted comments with low positivity or high negativity, eliciting “undesirable responses.”

I found this interesting, because I have just finished a discussion about “real life” persona versus internet persona on a social network for book-lovers called LibraryThing. One of my online friends on LibraryThing is a very active member of the group and is well-liked. However, he doesn’t hide the fact that in “real life” he is anxious in society and is horribly shy. So, again, I have to wonder about the study…how meaningful is it? Certainly, I can see how the study’s conclusions would be true of some people, and not of others…but how much should we really trust psychology studies like this? Do they really add something helpful our sociological table? How much of our tax money is going in to paying for these studies?

The House has passed an amendment to cut the NSF funding to political science because they feel that political scientists are generally unsuccessful in predicting huge political changes in the world. (There’s a  recent New York Times opinion article by Jacqueline Stevens on this subject.) And I’m sort of starting to agree…perhaps we DO need to be a little more careful about what kind of studies our tax money is going towards. Perhaps we should use some of our money to create a study to determine criteria for potentially useful areas of research, versus potential dead ends.

It hurts me to say that, because I know the pain of trying to get funding for a project that has no immediate medical value. (I DID work in hibernation research for 4 years!) And I certainly don’t think huge cuts in scientific funding is what our economy needs right now. And I TOTALLY understand that sometimes studies that don’t have much potential (as gauged by the critical eye) serendipitously stumble upon the world’s greatest breakthroughs. So where do we draw the line? I don’t know, because I’m not an economist. I’m a scientist who really WANTS everyone to be funded…but is that really for the best? 

Ah! The torture of ambivalence! 😦

*I can’t get the link to work, but you can find it on The Economist’s webpage. Just search for the title Tall, Dark and Stable.