Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Science of Santorum

(Posted by Jocelyn)

When President Obama assumed office, he promised to "restore science to its rightful place." This was a pretty big relief not only to the scientific community (who saw their federal funding slashed under the Bush administration), but also to people with diseases like Parkinson's (who could see a cure as a result of embryonic stem cell research), environmentalists (who are concerned about climate change), and pretty much everyone who understands that evolution is a 'theory' the way santorum is 'not something you want to get on your sheets.'

Luckily for the rest of Americans, however, Senator Rick Santorum (now officially a Republican presidential candidate) has views on science that rival George W. Bush's. In 2005, Santorum did an interview with George Stephanopoulos in which he argued that, as someone who is pro-life, he could not support embryonic stem cell research. According to the International Society for Stem Cell Research, however, embryonic stem cells are used to achieve specific research goals:

A. Insight into human development
Most knowledge about human development has been obtained through studying model organisms, such as fruit flies, worms, frogs and mice. Human embryonic stem cell lines, which can be cultured and differentiated into a variety of cells and tissues paralleling the earliest events in the development of the embryo offer a unique window into human development.

B. Study of diseases and how they develop
Experimental animal models are typically used to study human diseases in the lab. However, they do not exactly model the disease as it occurs in people. Human pluripotent stem cells, particularly patient or disease-specific lines, offer the possibility to model human disease more accurately in the lab. Read more about disease-specific or patient-specific pluripotent stem cells

C. Regenerative medicine
Replacing diseased cells with healthy cells, an approach called regenerative medicine, is a promising application of stem cells. Currently, researchers are investigating the use of adult, fetal and embryonic stem cells as a resource for various, specialized cell types, such as nerve cells, muscle cells, blood cells and skin cells that can be used to treat various diseases. In theory, any condition in which there is tissue degeneration can be a potential candidate for stem cell therapies, including Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, heart disease, Type 1 diabetes, muscular dystrophies, retinal degeneration and liver diseases. However, an important consideration here is that in some cases the immune system causes the disease by destroying critical cells, such as insulin-producing cells in type I diabetes. It is therefore possible that stem cell-derived insulin-producing cells will be attacked by the immune system as well.

Additionally, some types of stem cells have been shown to migrate toward tumors or sites of injury, or to secrete various factors that influence the behavior of other cells, such as those of the immune system.

These represent possible alternative approaches for the future development of stem cell-based therapies.
Obviously, Santorum has chosen to use the term 'pro-life' to mean something very specific that does not include being a proponent of human life. A proponent of human life (like, say, Barack Obama, who overturned the 2001 ban on embryonic stem cell research after assuming office in 2009) would support scientific research that could present a cure for a number of chronic and/or terminal illnesses. A proponent of science would be able to see the difference between "killing a human embryo" and saving a lot of human adults.

Santorum's views on climate change are similarly troubling. In a 2009 op-ed, he claimed that "global temperatures have actually cooled over the last 10 years and are predicted to continue cooling over the next 10," which is demonstrably not true. In fact the numbers come from a man named Don Easterbrook, who teaches at Western Washington University and whose research puts him at odds with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

All that, however, is debatable. It's not morally offensive to value human life, even if you express it in an illogical way. Nor is it ridiculous to question climate science when it is still an area of active research and new discovery. Rick Santorum's views on evolution, however, are wholly unacceptable. Just take a look at what he had to say about creationism intelligent design back in 2002:
The theory of intelligent design, which predates ancient Greece, contends that nature shows tangible signs of having been created by a pre-existing intelligence. This is in contrast to Charles Darwin's theory, which assumes all physical and material reality has gradually evolved through pure chance and natural selection, whereby the fittest members of each species survive and reproduce.
It's almost not even worth arguing with a statement like that. Where do you even start? There's the fact that there aren't a whole lot of scientific theories that "predate ancient Greece" and still hold water today. Or perhaps the argument that as a respected scientific theory, evolution "assumes" nothing, but is rather proved to be true time and time again by a continuous gathering of evidence from a number of sources. There are also the old stand-by arguments that a scientific theory and a regular, everyday theory are two entirely different animals. Failing that, we could always just go with the obvious: all the evidence we have about life on this planet points to the fact that evolution not only happened, but continues to happen today.


But, in the end, there's really no use arguing with a man whose faith forces him to choose between reality and fantasy. His mind is made up. All we can do is make damn sure that Rick 'Frothy Mix' Santorum doesn't get anywhere near the presidency, thus keeping our science labs, public schools, and health out of his hands.

2 comments:

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