Us and Stem – Only The Daily Show Can Help Us Now

By Mark Trodden | July 21, 2006 2:41 pm

What do you say about a President who is prepared to ignore the clear will of Congress, a significant majority of the country, and mountains of scientific data? What do you say when, faced with a complicated issue for which, to most people, there isn’t an obvious a priori answer, the leader of the free world relies on ideology to set his agenda, rather than wrestling rationally with the issue on its merits? What do you say when a man who has led thousands of Americans and countless Iraqis to their deaths over a lie, feels it is up to him to preach morals?

It really makes you want to cry, and I am at a loss for words, except for those that would make for an extremely family-unfriendly post. However, the situation is so unbelievably absurd that it does lend itself to excellent humor. If this path helps you at all, The Daily Show has been having a field day with the stem cell veto. Click on the image and take a look. I hope it provides a little relief.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Humor, Politics
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  • Dan

    Thanks for the clip, Mark! It’s really funny.

  • http://spatulated.wordpress.com/ Spatulated

    I was literally crying and laughing at the same time when I saw that episode last night…..

    I hate bush so much

  • http://spatulated.wordpress.com/ Spatulated

    hate to plug, but there are two more videos (one more of the daily show, and one from the colbert report) on my blog. just click my name =)

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    You know, if they cared half as much about people already alive as frozen embryos, the world would be a better place.

    But, destroying innocent lives in Lebanon is a-ok with Bush and the righties.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance JoAnne

    I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard! I think the point was made….

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Thanks for this! There is an equally funny Daily Show follow-up to the link you posted here.

  • Charles Martel

    Looks like someone could use a bit of assistance with his forensic skills, not to mention a civics lesson or two.

    “What do you say about a President who is prepared to ignore the clear will of Congress…”

    -> This is what is known as a presidential veto. According to Wikipedia, Bill Clinton “ignored the clear will of Congress” 36 times, George H.W. Bush 29 times, Ronald Reagan 39 times, and so forth. Frankly, I wish George W. Bush “ignored the clear will of Congress” a bit more often.

    “…a significant majority of the country…”

    -> America is a republic. Citizens elect representatives to make policy decisions and laws on their behalf. If those citizens are displeased with the above policy decisions and laws, they never have to wait more than two years to officially voice their discontent.

    “…and mountains of scientific data? What do you say when, faced with a complicated issue for which, to most people, there isn’t an obvious a priori answer, the leader of the free world relies on ideology to set his agenda, rather than wrestling rationally with the issue on its merits?”

    -> If the issue is so complicated and with no a priori answer, then surely there is room for people to reach different conclusions than the ones you have reached, correct? Or are you not comfortable when people have opinions which conflict with your own? (Being firmly ensconced in the Ivory Tower, you surely have scant experience with such a dreaded scenario.) Oh wait, I got it now: people with different opinions than you base them on “ideology” as opposed to “rational” arguments. And who says academics are divorced from humility?

    “What do you say when a man who has led thousands of Americans and countless Iraqis to their deaths over a lie, feels it is up to him to preach morals?”

    -> I say “Thank you for finally toppling Saddam and giving the Iraqis the first glimmer of hope for a freer and more democratic society in 5000 years. So, when are we heading to Iran?”

    C.M.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Charles Martel, the problem is not that Bush went to war (well it is, but not in this context), because sometimes war is necessary. The point is that he presents himself as the only one in government that cares about human life, born or unborn. As was superbly demonstrated by the Daily Show, there is a discrepancy between Bush’s moral stance on stem cell research and his moral stance on killing Iraqis.

    It seems to me that many people who oppose stem cell research do so on the basis of the potential for an embryo to become a human being. But an embryo has no feelings, and certainly does not care whether it turns into a human being. And may I remind you that as much as 50% of embryos actually miscarry in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy? So what’s the problem?

  • spyder

    It is the craven hypocrisy that bothers me. The blastocysts will be destroyed anyway. There is not saving intended, no snowflake life protected; more than 90% of the stored material is scheduled for the incinerator. The bill merely suggested that some of that soon to be discarded material could be discarded in other ways.

    Of course without all the embryonic research in the first place we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all, since there would be no blastocysts stored anywhere. Good thing none of this really matters, as states and private corporations will continue to fund further advances, while the rest of the world sweeps a couple of lightyears ahead in science and technology studies.

  • Cynthia

    Oh the irony of it all…While surrounded by an array of virginal snowflakes, Bush loses his veto-virginity!

    By the way -Spatulated- thanks for the extra links!

  • http://www.globalspan.com Tom Lewellen

    These easy shots about Bush’s veto on stem cell research seem to gloss over important ideas about life itself. Certainly, if the deaths in Iraq and Lebanon are unacceptable and immoral, then so too is the destruction of the most incipient of life, a human embryo.

    The science on most of these pages is truly well done. I would also expect the kind of meticulous work could and would be applied to moral and philosophical questions.

    God or no God, questions of the value of human life, no matter what its form need a little humor here and there, but they also need our scrupulous attention as well.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    So take a look at some of our other posts.

    My point was not that it isn’t a difficult issue (in fact, I think I specifically pointed it out), but that Bush’s way of resolving it doesn’t address any of the difficulties in a meaningful way, but rather ignores them and in effect says – “My personal set of baseless superstitions is what the country should follow”.

    I don’t think you can refer to my short post as not meticulous, while feeling quite comfortable referring to an embryo as a human life like it is obvious that we should treat it as such.

  • agnostic

    For the past week, I have attempted to promote the idea that Rapture is coming on Friday, July 28, 2006, claiming that it can only affect true believers if they immediately travel to the promised land (israel) prior to that date. I am sad to say that my efforts have not reached even a smidgeon of success. most of them seem to still reside within our borders.

    Oh, well. Back to believing in a world that is 6,015 yrs old, there is no evolution, and that stemcells are people, I suppose. And a flat earth. And Tony Snowflakes suddenly finding themselves in DC JUST IN TIME for a veto. I wonder how many tax dollars were wasted on that dog and pony.

    The analysis of Bush’s thought process I’ve seen here is admirable. Well considered, deep and most likely, quite accurate. There is the exceedingly small possibility that he makes that shit up only to confuse us and excite his religious reichtists, but I suspect that what we see is what we get. The real powerbrokers are not in the oval office, though. It is those who determine what and how to feed discrete bits of information to this man, knowing just how to manipulate him. I suspect Cheney and other neocons have done quite well in that regard.

    The wild card is not Condi Rice. She is too inept and shallow to truly hold even her shoes up in this crowd. Everything she has touched has fallen apart. She does not set policy, except in the most crude and superficial way. But, she does have the ear of Bush. Pity she has no mind of her own worth mentioning.

    No, the wild card exists deep inside three organizations, perhaps four.

    a) the Justice Department
    b) the DOD
    c) congressional staffers
    d) – - – -

    There exist true patriots, true Americans, and people who took their oath to the constitution seriously. Some have even survived 6 yrs of Bush, Rummie, Cheney, and other bulemic-like purgings. There lies our greatest hope, especially if the country’s future is again stolen by electronic voting fraud and worse. They need our help, and we certainly need their’s.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    The blog balancing life has this:
    http://balancinglife.blogspot.com/2006/07/nimble-mobile-small-and-young.html

    about the fading of American biomedical research. Not related to the topic of this thread; but I think it is of interest to anyone concerned about science.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    There will be a decision in Brussels on this same topic topic today.

  • Vince

    PK:

    “It seems to me that many people who oppose stem cell research do so on the basis of the potential for an embryo to become a human being.”

    I think they oppose it because they think the embryo IS a human being with the potential of becoming a full-grown human being.

    “But an embryo has no feelings, and certainly does not care whether it turns into a human being.”
    Well, you’re assuming that the embryo is NOT a human being, in which case we can do experiments on them after all. The whole point is whether or not the embryo is a human being.

    “And may I remind you that as much as 50% of embryos actually miscarry in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy? So what’s the problem?”
    And millions of people die of natural disasters. What’s your point?

    Spyder:

    “It is the craven hypocrisy that bothers me. The blastocysts will be destroyed anyway. There is not saving intended, no snowflake life protected; more than 90% of the stored material is scheduled for the incinerator. The bill merely suggested that some of that soon to be discarded material could be discarded in other ways.”

    The inmates on death row will be destroyed anyway. There is not saving intended. They’re scheduled for death. The bill merely suggested that some of those soon to be killed inmates be experimented on before they’re discarded anyway.

    Mark:
    According to http://www.m-w.com, “superstition” is defined to be the following:
    “1 a : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation b : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
    2 : a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary”

    I think many people who oppose ESCR are not ignorant of the subject, scared of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or have an irrational attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God. Also, I think there is evidence for both sides (scientific evidence, philosophical arguments, etc.), though I think the arguments for why it is human are correct. Oh well.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Vince, an embryo is clearly not the same as a human being, even though they may have the same DNA structure. The key difference between embryos and human beings is that the embryo does not have any feelings (i.e., no developed brain). So your analogy with death row inmates does not fly.

  • Vince

    So when is there a “developed brain”? What does “developed brain” mean? What if the brain is clearly visible, but is not yet “turned on” (to use more ill-defined terminology)? Is it still not a human being? Is a computer still a computer if it’s not turned on? I figure humans are like computers right (after all, we’re all just a bunch of atoms)? Of course, I don’t think we’re simply very sophisticated forms of a computer.

    Isn’t there some sort of purpose behind the developing embryo? Constantly dividing and forming itself into a form which is more and more noticeably human? Sure, there’s no brain yet, but it will develop from that mass of cells which is no doubt alive and growing into something. I look at that and I call it a human.

    But all this doesn’t matter if we’re all just a bunch of atoms, blindly following the laws of physics. We have no mind, no purpose, no free will.
    :(

    But if embryos are human beings and inmates are human beings, my analogy does fly. It flies like an eagle through the air. Like a supersonic jet, baby.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Vince, I do understand your position on an emotional level, but you make the logical mistake of asking where in the continuum of greys black turns into white. A human embryo is not the same as a human being: what you call ill-defined terminology is clearly well-defined at the extremes we are talking about here. The question of what is a working brain becomes blurry only much later in the embryo’s development.

    Another clear difference between embryos and human beings is that the latter do not need a host to survive. This is why the legal limit of abortion is typically set at 24 weeks, when a baby can survive (in an incubator).

    Again, I do understand your position, but the particular argument of the sliding scale you are using simply does not fly.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Treating potential human beings as if they were the juridical equivalent of actual human beings has all kinds of bad consequences: as I understand the position of the Catholic Church, for example, equillibrating potential and actual human life lies behind the prohibition on birth control, a rule that has had hugely negative consequences for actual human beings. Indeed, if you buy the church’s reasoning, the only moral thing to do is to fill every square inch of the planet with wretched people. The heck with that.

    If we recognize the priority of the actual, destroying a six-week old fetus is a far less morally serious act than killing a chicken, which, after all, is sentient. Of course this sort of reasoning assumes that what is precious in human existence is something that comes to be over a long process of development. The alternative notion that an immaterial essence or soul arrives at conception or, as the older theologians believed, quickening is one of those theological ideas immune to rational criticism. You can make fun of the Casper the Friendly Ghost version of psychology, but you can’t refute it and I won’t try.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara
  • Cynthia

    I’ll point out that there is a painful side-effect behind this Bush veto. This veto sends the message that progress in science is insignificant to the overall health as well as economic strength of our nation. I’m concerned that this presidential veto will drive more of our “life-science-talent” to abandon the more hostile research environments in the US to more friendlier research environments in other countries. In other words, this veto is placing the U.S. at greater risk for more “brain-draining” of its valuable intellectual capital.

    Doubtlessly, when a nation engages in the practice of “brain-draining”, this is a sure way for a nation to lose its empire status. Therefore -most ironically- this veto reflects the administration’s lackadaisical attitude towards protecting the U.S.’s empire status in the world.

  • Vince

    PK:

    “Another clear difference between embryos and human beings is that the latter do not need a host to survive. ”

    True, that’s a difference between an embryo and a fully grown human. However, is this part of the definition of a human being? Couldn’t you say that it’s a human being who is not developed enough to survive outside the womb? All I’m saying is that the human embryo is a living and growing thing, with its own DNA, organising itself into something exhibiting the features we associate with a person. In the process, it develops more and more of the organs and parts it needs to some day function on its own outside the womb. If all goes well, it’ll develop into an adult who will reproduce, and the cycle starts over again. This leads me to conclue that the embryo is a human life.

    Jim:

    “Treating potential human beings as if they were the juridical equivalent of actual human beings has all kinds of bad consequences:”

    True. Especially since potential human beings are NOT, by definition, actual human beings. But an embryo isn’t a potential human being.

    “as I understand the position of the Catholic Church, for example, equillibrating potential and actual human life lies behind the prohibition on birth control, a rule that has had hugely negative consequences for actual human beings.”

    Actually, you misunderstand the position of the Catholic Church. Surprise surprise. It’s silly to equilibrate potential and actual human life, as a potential human being is not an actual one. Here’s a pretty good article explaining the Church’s position. http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/mcm_04moraldifference.html

    “Indeed, if you buy the church’s reasoning, the only moral thing to do is to fill every square inch of the planet with wretched people. The heck with that.”

    Yeah, that follows.

    “Of course this sort of reasoning assumes that what is precious in human existence is something that comes to be over a long process of development.”

    So now there’s something “precious” in human existence? We’re just a bunch of atoms, right?. Nothing precious about that.

    “The alternative notion that an immaterial essence or soul arrives at conception or, as the older theologians believed, quickening is one of those theological ideas immune to rational criticism.”

    If you consult some Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, you’ll conclude that they were rational geniuses and that Aquinas’ writings on God, and humanity, are not in contradiction with reason, but are very rational writings, baby.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Bingo! You have to appeal to ancient metaphysical ideas to make any sense at all out of modern religious obscuranism, but the philosophy to which you make covert appeal, though it was anything but absurd in its own time, is just not credible any more. For excellent reasons, nobody buys universal hylomorphism at this late stage of human history. Aquinas was a very smart guy, but the was operating with scientific or proto-scientific ideas that have been dead as a doornail for hundreds of years. The funny thing is, Aquinas caught a lot of grief because he used Aristotelian ideas as he attempted to construct a rational basis for faith–his works were actually censured for this reason in a local synod in the years after his death.

    By the way, attacking your polemical opponents on the theory that they believe that “we’re just a bunch of atoms” is rather silly. Of couse we’re a bunch of atoms. What we’re made of isn’t obviously the important dimension, any more than knowing that a poem is made out of sounds or letters tells you a great deal about it as a work of art. The funny thing about your rhetoric is that it is actually rather materialistic since you imply (I guess?) that the soul is itself a substance, albiet a special, ghostly kind of substance. To use an old Aristotelian way of talking, you seem to be looking for a material cause, rather than a final, formal, or efficient one. You may think you’re a thing. I think I’m a manner. Not a noun. An adverb.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Vince #24:
    You will find some twisted arguments throughout history [1] for the soul in the homunculus, and Thomas Acquinas was one of the authors. Moreover, one of the paradoxes of the modern Church (last decades) was that old religious debates that took centuries to resolve were rolled back to ideas before Aquinas’ time. Reminding you about some history of Aquinas –

    In a work perhaps written in the fourteenth century ascribed to Thomas Acquinas titled _De essentiis essentiarum_ (On the Essences of Essences) Thomas refers to the homunculus as a proof that a female seed could not contribute to human generation. He said that man and sun generate a man, but that the womb’s role can be considered two ways: it either acts naturally when it preserves the semen and supplies it with a natural heat that stimulates its growth, but when it nourishes the semen with menstrual blood, it behaves artificially, like an agriculturalist when he fertilizes a field. Thomas used this reasoning to conclude that the mother contributes nothing to the essence of the child, but only provides a sort of incubator and nourishment.

    When others argued the opposite, Thomas responded that empirical proof from the laboratory (for this ‘evidence’ he used the work by ninth-century Arab physician and alchemist Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi) showed that semen of a man kept in a clean vessel under the heat of dung for thirty days generated a man, but that such a man will not have a ‘rational soul’, because he is not from the union of a male and female, but that such a man will have a ‘sensitive soul’, instead.

    So then Thomas evaded the morality issue by asserting that the homunculus has only a sensitive rather than a rational soul, and therefore can be classified as subhuman and fit for research purposes. In his work: _On Being and Essence_ he said that the rational soul is produced by special creation at the moment when the organism is sufficiently developed to receive it. In the first stage of embryonic development, the vital principle has merely vegetative powers; then a sensitive soul comes into being, formed from the evolving potencies of the organism — *later yet*, this is replaced by the perfect rational soul [2]. In other words, in this medieval man’s view, the soul did not start at conception but started some considerable time afterwards.

    Thomas’ view in the fourteenth century was an enormous step forward for the Catholic Church, and the accepted truth for a long time afterwards. So then if one wishes today to be a good Catholic, how to reconcile the view of the ‘modern’ Church that a fully rational soul is infused into the embryo at the first moment of its existence?

    This ironic connundrum was not lost on some Italian media journalists in the May and June 2005 discussions of the failed Italian assisted reproductive technology Referendum, since one of the four points on which the Italians were voting was _at conception_ ‘Rights given to a human embryo under the law’. This is the reason I have in my notes historical notes about Aquinas. Unfortunately, even though most Italians are not ‘good’ Catholics, the public’s technophobias and the Vatican’s large-scale mass public relations media and undemocratic voting strategies (urging the Italians to not vote), resulted in the shockingly low 25% voter turnout and the Referendum didn’t pass and Berlusconi’s 2003 gift to the Vatican, the present draconic assisted reproductive technology laws stayed. The good thing about the new EU news is that Prodi is favorable to stem stell research and helped Italy retract their EU objection, which means that maybe the ART laws will have less bite now too. Maybe.

    [1] _Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature_ Nonfiction. By William R. Newman. University of Chicago Press, 2004, page 188-189.

    [2] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/aquinas-esse.html Medieval Sourcebook: Thomas Aquinas: On Being and Essence (DE ENTE Et ESSENTIA)

  • Vince

    “By the way, attacking your polemical opponents on the theory that they believe that “we’re just a bunch of atoms” is rather silly. Of couse we’re a bunch of atoms. What we’re made of isn’t obviously the important dimension, any more than knowing that a poem is made out of sounds or letters tells you a great deal about it as a work of art. The funny thing about your rhetoric is that it is actually rather materialistic since you imply (I guess?) that the soul is itself a substance, albiet a special, ghostly kind of substance.”

    Well, I have a habit of bringing up the “we’re just a bunch of atoms anyway” line, as you know from a previous post. :)

    I guess I’m just trying to say that if a strictly materialistic theory of the universe (including us) were correct, then what worth do we have? That question may not make any sense in a materialistic world anyway, but I can’t reconcile that with the idea of free will, and the human intellect. It just seems pointless to argue for or against embryonic stem cell research, for example, if we’re just a bunch of particles interacting according to the Standard Model. Off topic, I guess.

    Anyway, I stand behind the first paragraph I wrote in my previous comment, #24. I just think that such a thing describes a new human life. I can’t be convinced otherwise, and probably neither can many people holding the opposite view.

    Man, I have to proofread a paper before submitting it. And I have to pack. The folks at CV sure know how to push my buttons and give me an outlet for procrastination. Gotta cutback. :)

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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