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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Update on The March for Science

Recall my prior post "I am not a scientist." 

In my inbox this morning.


We are overwhelmed and grateful at the incredible support we've had in organizing this march. In the last week, almost 40,000 people have reached out to us eager to help.

We want to thank you so much for your support of the March for Science — and for you patience while we secured permits and coordinated with sister marches.

The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. 

On April 22, 2017, scientists and science enthusiasts will take to the streets.

We will be reaching out to you for volunteer help in the coming weeks — we look forward to collaborating with you on outreach, planning events, fundraising, developing apps, brainstorming next steps, orchestrating satellite marches, and improving the world through science!

Satellite marches are being formed in countries across the globe from Canada to Australia. In Washington DC, our march will lead to a rally on the Washington Mall where scientists will hold teach-ins about their work and how science impacts our every day lives. Scientific discovery can be an arduous process, but it's also fun — it's time we share that excitement with the world!

The March for Science Team

I was beginning to wonder. I put in to volunteer straight away, but never heard anything in response.

They've now mounted a web page.

Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram links there. Hashtag #marchforscience.

Nice "diversity" statement:
In the past days, scientists have voiced concern over many issues - gag orders for government science agencies, funding freezes, and reversing science based policies. We recognize that these changes will differently and disproportionately affect minority scientists, science advocates, and the global communities impacted by these changes in American policies. Addressing these issues is imperative in understanding how recent developments will affect all people - not simply the most privileged among us. We take seriously your concerns that for this march to be meaningful, we must centralize diversity of the march's organizers at all levels of planning. Diversity must also be reflected in the march itself - both through the mission statement and those who participate.

At the March for Science, we are committed to highlighting, standing in solidarity with, and acting as allies with black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, indigenous, Muslim, non-Christian, non-religious, women, people with disabilities, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex scientists and science advocates. We must work to make science available to everyone and encouraging individuals of all backgrounds to pursue science careers, especially in advanced degrees and positions. A diverse group of scientists produces increasingly diverse research, which broadens, strengthens, and enriches scientific inquiry, and therefore, our understanding of the world.

I would gladly go and attend the DC march (I could see and stay with my son at his house in Baltimore), but I am also quite willing to help establish and participate in a Bay Area march. I will be making a donation as well.

See also the related

I again call attention to some excellent reading going to the central issues.

The first four comprise a compelling tour from the Big Bang to today's troubling Anthropocene era. The latter three go to issues of science denial and effective, potentially "disruptive" communication in a digital age. I've cited them before. All highly recommended.

Shawn Otto's book The War on Science dwells in particular on three areas of front-burner policy contention: [1] evolution, [2] climate change, and [3] human reproductive rights (long under attack, but increasingly so of late).

"Science Denialism" runs rampant on the first two. My position on the latter, politically radioactive topic has been set forth in some detail on one of my other blogs. See my 2008 post "Diploid Dave, Zelinda Zygote."

Shawn Otto:
When Does Life Begin? Another example of the thorny intersection of science with traditional ideas, law, and politics comes from the biosciences. Careful, reproducible observations and measurements have forced us to repeatedly refine our ideas about what life is and when it begins. Is a human being first a life when it emerges from the birth canal? Does it have any legal rights as a person before then? Or is it a life when it is able to survive independently outside of the womb even if it is removed early, as can happen naturally with premature birth or with a Caesarean section? Or is it perhaps a life at quickening (the moment a mother first feels a fetus move, at about four months), as was the legal standard for a life when America was formed? But wait! Perhaps it is really a life when a fertilized egg first implants in the uterine lining, which, based on observations, is the medical definition of when a pregnancy begins. A woman cannot be said to be pregnant until her body begins the chemical and biological changes that accompany a symbiotic hosting of the embryo, can she? If it does not implant, the egg, even if fertilized, is simply flushed. Here we get into a tricky area, because many religious conservatives say, “No, it is a life when egg and sperm meet,” whether or not the fertilized egg ever implants. 

But then, a scientist would ask the fundamentalist, is it still a life at the moment of fertilization, even if we know from careful observation that one-third to one-half of fertilized eggs never implant, and as many as three-quarters fail to lead to an ongoing pregnancy? And, of course, that brings up more questions: What are fertilized eggs that never implant? How should we define them, if life occurs at fertilization? As miscarriages? Abortions? Nonpregnancies? Suicides? Murders? Something else? What implications might that definition have— legally, ethically, morally— for the use of birth-control pills that inhibit implantation? Is that abortion, murder, or pregnancy prevention? 

As our careful observations of life continue, so does our power both to assist and prevent pregnancy. But as our skills improve, new, more troubling questions form. What if we remove the uterus from the process entirely? Is it a life when sperm and egg are joined in a test tube at a fertility clinic and allowed to divide into a group of, say, sixteen cells that are then frozen for future implantation in a woman desperate to have children? Can the woman be said to be “pregnant” as long as this microscopic clump of frozen cells exists? What does Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores say about that? What, if any, rights should these frozen cells possess? And is a child conceived in this way— a “test-tube baby,” as we once called them— without a soul, as was suggested by some religious conservatives in the 1970s? Once born, are the joy they bring and the contributions they make less valuable? If we make a special exception for them, by agreeing that in vitro fertilization is not interfering with God’s plan, or by acknowledging that they do appear to have souls, why? On what basis? And what does that make the dozens of frozen cells we discard after a successful pregnancy? 

While we’re pondering these linguistic, legal, and ethical quandaries, our observations lead us to yet another new understanding. We don’t need sperm to fertilize an egg; we can do it with the nucleus of another cell from the same being. We try this, and sure enough, we find we can create many identical genetic copies of a sheep or mouse. We call them clones. But then we have to ask: Is it a life if it is just an ovum that has had its nucleus removed and replaced by the nucleus of another cell, and has then been chemically or electrically shocked to induce the natural process of cell division, without fertilization by sperm? If egg and sperm have never met, is it a life? Or is that creature— possibly, one day, a human— damned or soulless as it was once argued “test tube babies” would be? 

Observations tell us that beings produced in nontraditional ways seem to be the same as any other creatures. We have to ask, then, is every one of the roughly 1.5 million eggs a woman has in her ovaries at birth a life with rights? When, exactly, does life begin? Is it true, as the comedy troupe Monty Python sang in The Meaning of Life, that “every sperm is sacred”? 

What happens if we transform adult skin cells into stem cells, and those into sperm and egg, and then fertilize one with the other? Is that a clone or something else? What if we take the troublesome term “fertilization” out of the picture? Is it a life if we design its genome on a computer (as scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have done), buy a high-quality DNA synthesizer on eBay for $ 8,000 or so, use it to make fragments of the genome we designed, chemically stitch the fragments together, inject the complete genome into a cell with an empty nucleus, and shock it into replicating? Here, we have made a living, reproducing thing starting with a computer design and a few common chemicals. What does that mean for our ideas about life and our definition about conception? Is it wrong to be doing this? To be asking these questions? Applying these observations? Gaining these powers? 

What is life? Is life an unbroken chain of genetic code, running down through the generations, endlessly recombining in new forms? Is it software? Does the software beget the hardware? When does it become an individual with rights? Where do we draw the legal line? The moral line? Can we draw a line at all? Is that the right way to be thinking about it? And if we do, how do we define the terms conception, fertilization, implantation, and pregnancy?
Otto, Shawn Lawrence (2016-06-07). The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (Kindle Locations 1120-1164). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.
"When does life begin?"

The (soon likely to be again pressing) Constitutional question is "when does personhood begin?"

I'm not sure "science" can answer that. It can help inform the answer, but the answer will necessarily come from serious, difficult moral deliberation. Serious deliberation, not the preening clean-hands moral dilettantism that seems to be at the anti-choice activist policy fore.

"Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for public debates in which the U.S. presidential and congressional candidates share their views on the issues of science and technology policy, health and medicine, and the environment."
I never sign online petitions, because you typically end up as a Mark, with your info sold to fundraising hucksters. I'm making an exception this time.


Rational reasoning and truth have been much on my mind as we enter a world of alternative facts and crypto-fascist edicts from the White House, less than two weeks into Donald Trump’s Administration. Last week, when “1984” rose toward the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, I dug out my dog-eared paperback copy and reread a quotation that I had underlined a decade and a half earlier: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”

In recent days, as Trump and his cohorts have peddled blatant falsehoods—that his Inauguration attracted the largest crowd in history, or that he lost the popular vote owing to millions of votes by illegal aliens—I have wondered about the extent to which minds can be controlled, or, rather, commandeered, by the relentless deluge of misinformation...

The muddling of fact and fiction is a tried-and-true tactic of totalitarian regimes. What’s more, when the two are confused for long enough, or when an indefatigable war on truth has been waged for a year, or two years, or perhaps eight, it will likely be harder and more tiresome to untangle them and remember a time when a firm line was drawn between the true and the false as a matter of course. If amnesia breeds normalization, fatigue has always served as the authoritarian’s great accomplice...

In the next four to eight years, American children will be born in a country led by a vainglorious man who wishes to fit facts—and their future—into the convenient shape of his ego. But democracy, freedom of expression, and, above all, the right to truth are not antiquated pieties. They belong to citizens who can still make their voices heard, before resignation metastasizes into complacency, exhaustion into self-doubt. The struggle will be to maintain openness and tolerance as the norm, the values that our children absorb into their identities naturally—to be defended rather than be defensive about...
- Jiayang Fan


Fear-mongering and otherwise pandering authoritarian irrationality extends to policy areas beyond explicit science topics such as climate change, evolution, and reproductive biology. Take, for example, the current dust-up over Trump's Executive Order immigration ban and his methodologically / operationally TBA promise of "extreme vetting." I'd call it "Total Information Awareness 2.0."

I've written on this topic elsewhere as well. After the GW Bush administration proposed a "Total Information Awareness" panoptic surveillance initiative in the wake of 9/11, I posted a web page entitled The Homeland Security Act and the proposed DARPA "Total Information Awareness" (TIA) program. (Probably a good bit of 'link rot' on that 15 yr old old thing. BTW, I had a bit of sport with the TIA Director here. Yes, I actually sent that via snailmail.)

I expanded on that riff in a more comprehensive 2008 blog post entitled Privacy and the 4th Amendment amid the "War on Terror."

Among other things, you're hemmed in by Bayes. Prevalence matters. Technologically, the gumshoe real world is not yet "The Bourne Ultimatum."

Just joined. Group link here. There's also a Twitter group. One of an increasing number, it would seem. #MarchForScience


Via my now-daily email newsfeed from Scientific American:
Trump Immigration Ban Can Worsen U.S. Doctor Shortage, Hurt Hospitals
Thousands of U.S. physicians and medical students from banned countries may leave hospitals without staff 

The U.S. could face a shortfall of thousands of doctors, experts warn, because Pres. Donald Trump issued an executive order last week that banned citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days. The order has created fears among foreign-born doctors and medical students—more than a quarter of the physician workforce in the U.S. comes from other countries, including Syria and Iran—that they will be persecuted in the U.S. or forced to leave. Medical school leaders say that sought-after applicants are likely to move their careers to other countries...
The Stupid. It burns.

UPDATE: Michael Specter nails it in The New Yorker, "The Deep Denialism of Donald Trump."

More to come...

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