This is Kate. She is the niece of dailykos user noweasels (who gave me permission to share her story and photo here). Kate has juvenile diabetes, and hopes stem cell research will someday fix that.
What I think is great about Kate is, here's this teenager who understands science is a force for good. That's clear to her, because she knows she would have died as an infant without it. She comes skin-to-needle with science every day.
Unfortunately most adults don't get that. In particular, 174 Representatives in the U.S. House showed yesterday that they still don't get what Kate has understood for years. They've been duped by a pernicious frame: that "Mad Scientists" are running amok.
I'll have more to say on the stem cell vote in a later post. For now, I'll just note that its function was to see where we stand in the new Congress, and we find we're about where I thought we'd be: a handful of votes have flipped, but we need another 24 or so. In the coming Senate debate, keep an eye on whether Bob Casey can lead the anti-abortionists out of the woods.
The reason we haven't won yet on stem cells is the same reason we're still struggling on global warming, on evolution teaching, and on funding the NIH. A large chunk of the public simply doesn't trust scientists. They see them as something like evil wizards, meddling with nature.
What are we going to do about it? Well, first, let's take a quick trip back to about 1975 -- back before Kate could have gotten human insulin. Scientists had just begun to figure out how to isolate certain kinds of DNA and transfer them to bacteria. One key experiment that was planned was to transfer DNA sequences from a monkey virus into bacteria. Suddenly an alarm was raised: Was this really such a good idea? Might it be dangerous?
Following letters to the major journals and scientific symposia devoted to the new technology, the leading researcher Paul Berg summarized the sense of the community in a letter to the National Academy of Sciences:
Paul Berg: Concerned people raised a big heckle about whether I was doing an experiment that was radically dangerous and jeopardizing the safety and health of people around me. That was the first experiment with recombinant DNA. Right away, I was on the offensive because I had never perceived that the experiment had any great risk. In the end, I got very much involved in trying to respond to that. Some of the experiments we wanted to do were the ones that people objected to. We decided to just defer them for the moment.
How things have changed. No longer do scientists get to decide for themselves when to raise an alarm. Now, alarms are sounded by political groups bent on pushing an ideological agenda and skilled at using the media as their megaphone. No longer are the concerns focused on legitimate affairs like safety. Now, the accusations are that scientists play God, cross religious boundaries. That scientists deny the Biblical account of creation. That they "murder" a bundle of 32 cells the President thinks has a soul. That they are evil wizards. "Mad scientists."
This frame is cunningly deployed by extremist anti-research groups. Their standard procedure is to find some research the public is unlikely to understand, lie about its purpose and possible effects, hire their own "experts" to warn of its dangers, and spread this story in the traditional media. Often they attack basic research, which is easier to lie about because it is not aimed at curing a major disease but at understanding fundamental principles in biology -- like the work on how the ends of chromosomes are copied in pond scum or how impurities in a lab reaction can turn off specific genes that were awarded last year's Lasker award and Nobel prize, respectively. Who wouldn't think a scientist was crazy who was peering into pond scum? Who wouldn't think a scientist was dangerous who could flip any gene -- perhaps your genes, or your baby's genes! -- on and off like a switch?
We saw this in action just the other week. An article was run in the UK's Sunday Times reporting that a scientist in Oregon had cured homosexuality by cutting open the brains of sheep and attaching electronic sensors and injecting their brains with hormones -- and he was now going to cure gayness in humans. As I debunked at length, this research has not altered sexuality in sheep, does not involve cutting open their brains or giving hormone injections, and most importantly has nothing to do with curing gayness in humans. It is basic research designed to understand how hormones control brain development and behavior -- something Kate would understand, since she knows how strongly insulin affects her mood and metabolism.
Nevertheless, the frame was set and readers on blogs across the world swallowed it whole: "mad scientists" are trying to cure gayness. Within a week, conservative columnist Mark Steyn was writing in the Chicago Sun-Times that scientists had developed a skin patch that would "straighten" gay sheep and were set to use it in humans -- not to mention that they could detect gayness in the womb, and we would soon see thousands of gay abortions. And the most amazing thing is, people believed it.
Those people now had a frame in their heads, and when they hear "research" they don't think of Kate's insulin -- they think "mad scientist." A mad scientist who might clone humans with stem cells, who would not hesitate to destroy human life. Who would lie about global warming, who would lie about evolution. A scientist as just another player in a big political game. All of which is just what PETA wanted them to think when they planted the "gay sheep" lie to begin with.
How would those people react today if they heard scientists were going to put DNA sequences from a monkey virus into bacteria? (I'll give you a hint: "GMO" is the modern industrial term for the "recombinant DNA" that Berg helped invent.) And whatever happened to Berg's original recombinant DNA, the ability to put human DNA sequences into bacteria? It's still being used today. It's how Kate gets her insulin.
Today, a scientist doing basic research like Berg's, like Roselli's, can easily be framed as a "mad scientist." The public loves the evil wizard fable, and it sells newspapers, as the Sunday Times knew. The research, from recombinant DNA to stem cell therapy to Roselli's hormone work, is too complicated to easily explain to the public, and thus is difficult to defend. The frame sticks. And when it comes time to vote on whether the President should be able to unilaterally block a major and potentially powerful field of research, 174 U.S. Representatives say it's all right to block it. Someone's got to stop those "mad scientists," after all.
The stem cell issue has gotten a lot of play lately. It's proven a great political wedge for separating the religious Right from the American mainstream. And many of you have worked hard to get stem cell bills passed and to elect pro-research candidates. You've done it because it's politically effective and because you want to help people like Kate whose lives may be changed by stem cell research.
I'm going to ask you now to start doing something else. Something that may seem unimportant but that I think is critical to winning in our struggle for stem cells, for global warming protection, for good science teaching. I'm going to ask you to actively watch the media for "mad scientist" stories and to actively debunk them. Here's what you do:
1. Read news reports on science with skepticism. Ask yourself, "When was this research published and was it in a major journal (Science, Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association)?" If a story is making a bigger splash in the popular press than it made in the scientific community, something is fishy.
2. Learn about the science yourself by using google, by looking at the scientists' homepage, by emailing their university's Department of Public Affairs, or by emailing me for help at email@example.com
3. If something is wrong, post a diary on it. Hold the media to account. And, most importantly, use tools like Blogsearch to find blogs that are echoing the distortion, and use the comments to set them straight.
That's it. Three steps. It's almost too easy.
It doesn't have the glamour or buzz of fighting for stem cell research on the front lines. But this is 50-state-style politics. This is investing in infrastructure. Because even if we win on stem cells, we will still have to fight on global warming. And evolution. And NIH funding. And tomorrow's research battle, that is still being worked out in a lab somewhere today. We can fight each of these one at a time, on its own terms -- but our path will be easier if we defeat the "mad scientist" frame from the get-go. And that's something any blogger can do.
I'm asking you to actively join in this campaign. I'll be keeping an eye on new appearances of the frame -- I really encourage you to follow the links to the "gay sheep" story, which is very much still unfolding as I write, with more new blog postings than I can keep up with -- and I hope some of you will take the side of defending not only stem cells but science (and scientists) in general. So that scientists can do good for people like Kate.