Sunday, October 26, 2008

Religion's war on science, Part 2

So, you thought you had seen the worst of the Palin horrors?

Well, you haven't. And there are apparently more horrors to come. Strangely, it was the following statement by Palin that is now causing the biggest avalanche of reactions I've seen since those first interviews:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? ... You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

The first complaint I read was over at PZ's blog, "Sarah Palin: Ignorant and anti-science," and as expected, PZ was appalled, so I'll just borrow his phrasing since I share the sentiment:

... this pretentious clod (Palin), mocks basic research and the international research community. You damn well better believe that there is research going on in animal models — what does she expect, that scientists should mutagenize human mothers and chop up baby brains for this work? — and countries like France and Germany and England and Canada and China and India and others are all respected participants in these efforts.

Yes, scientists work on fruit flies. Some of the most powerful tools in genetics and molecular biology are available in fruit flies, and these are animals that are particularly amenable to experimentation. Molecular genetics has revealed that humans share key molecules, the basic developmental toolkit, with all other animals, thanks to our shared evolutionary heritage (something else the wackaloon from Wasilla denies), and that we can use these other organisms to probe the fundamental mechanisms that underlie core processes in the formation of the nervous system — precisely the phenomena Palin claims are so important.

Then in a second post, "Losing the sense of the argument," PZ Myers notes that the defense the right wing is throwing up to rationalize Sarah Palin's inane remarks about "fruit fly research" is: She wasn't disparaging all research into fruit flies, but only one specific earmark for studying agricultural pests.

As PZ says, it's baloney:

The context of that comment was that she was claiming research had "little or nothing to do with the public good", and she brought up these seemingly trivial little animals and a place the right wing despises as dogwhistles to her hoople-headed fans. Claiming now that she was making an informed criticism of a specific study is a feeble attempt to distract with a lie.

Remember, this is the crank governor of Alaska who denies evolution and global warming, the backup candidate to a man who mocks research into bear DNA and calls a multimillion dollar educational tool an "overhead projector", from a party that ridicules people with Parkinson's because they want more stem cell research, and idiots want to claim that she isn't really anti-science because in this one case she was actually targeting an instance of applied research that directly benefits agricultural interests?

That's insane. You have to be a purblind slavering zombie of the Rethuglican party to swallow that.

It goes deeper than just trying to belittle science, too — we are a technological society that is entirely dependent on the advancements science has brought to us, that is facing a new series of challenges that will require new science to overcome....

A day later and PZ has yet another post, Palineurism, and Christopher Hitchens is piling on with "Sarah Palin's War on Science." And there was also this:

Looking at PZ's posts and how this story has gotten legs I think it is far past time for me to do Part 2 of my old blog post, "Religion's War on Science," because, as I pointed out in part 1, Chris Mooney wrote a book, "The Republican War on Science" several years ago that puts such statements in context. That's why the legs this story has now surprises me, it's old news for Republicans to talk like that. Mooney wrote of worse going on under everybody's radar during the Bush years.

As Hitchens says, Palin's views are a part of, and a result of, her religious beliefs and her religion's war on science. She is a creationist and creationists aren't likely to be familiar with all the extraordinary evidence for evolution that has come from fruit fly research.

I also quoted Vox Day's "The case against science":
"... there is real cause to doubt the continued benefit of science to modern society, or even its right to a respectable place within it."

Palin is already there, blind to the benefits of modern science and lacking respect for it because all she can see is these silly sounding, "wasteful earmarks." She decided to mock funding for medical/genetic research and if there was any vetting of her sources it was just to create an excuse. Her scientific ignorance is not a new phenomena in either the Republican party or in Washington. Already a large chunk of the Republican party, including many in the Bush administration (and Bush himself), don't even know what science is in our modern world. Palin is not a more ignorant exception.

It was no surprise to me when Sarah Palin said it, but still, hearing it sent a chill down my spine. The statement was made as part of the mavericky maverick's first policy speech which urged the federal government to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), “a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation.” She seems to be suggesting that the government somehow ensure that children with disabilities have access to education, even in private schools. Sounds like some kind of welfare state socialism to me. Palin said that the amount that Congress spends on earmarks was enough to fund IDEA. She then ridiculed some fruit fly research that had been earmarked, implying that it had little or no value.

This was not politically stupid. Palin played to her audience, and the audience loved it. To an uneducated right-winger fruit fly research just sounds silly, why should we care? People who are as disgusted as me, PZ and Hitchens are in the minority. Palin did not specify which fruit fly research earmark she meant, just that it was in France, but she and her audience were apparently unaware that scientific research with fruit flies has led to valuable discoveries that have important implications for autism research. More than likely she is entirely ignorant of the importance of fruit flies in science generally. Seeing as fruit fly research has provided strong evidence for evolution, something Palin doesn't believe in, it's no surprise that this kind of research would seem like a silly waste of tax-payer money to her. Alas, it's not just her, according to Gallup polls the creationist view, that God created humans in their present form, is held by quite a few American voters.

Palin is simply dead wrong about fruit fly research having little or nothing to do with the public good whether it's via earmark or not. As I understand it, all the earmarks only come out to $16.9 billion (an overestimation) while the federal budget is $2880.5 billion, so earmarks make up only half a percent of the total budget. And if those earmarks include funding for basic science we may not want to get rid of them.

Whenever Palin or McCain choose an earmark to criticize, it's usually one related to science, like the "overhead" projector for the planetarium or the fruit fly research. Palin herself, if not corrected by her handlers, would probably try to dismiss fruit fly research as "junk science" if pushed on her statement. I say that because that's how these fundy Republicans tried to sweep embryonic stem cell research under the rug. Except for the insane Vox Day, most Republicans never say that they oppose "science." They know that the American public has positive attitudes about what they think of as science. Instead they exploit misconceptions about science common among the general public, such as a belief that uncertainty in findings indicates fatally flawed research. But most cutting-edge science is uncertain, science is built on theory, not proof.

As Hitchens noted, the fruit fly is the most researched organism in genetic research and much of what we have learned about how genes and evolution work come from the study of fruit flies. That includes the discovery, in Drosophila fruit flies, of a protein called neurexin that is required for nerve cell connections to form and function correctly and that may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders. Human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism. Fruit fly research has also revolutionized the study of birth defects.

It was back in the dawn of the 20th century when scientists were creating an entirely new way of looking at evolution. Instead of thinking about populations of plants and animals as collections of individuals, biologists began thinking in terms of genes and gene pools. Around about 1910, people like Charles W. Woodworth, Thomas Hunt Morgan and others began using fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) for genetic research. The research provided direct experimental evidence of evolution. By combining the fledgling science of genetics with Darwinian evolution, scientists gave Darwin's ideas the empirical verification they'd been looking for.

Fruit flies were used because they breed rapidly, require little food, have scores of easily observed characteristics. They could be bred by the thousands in milk bottles and it cost little to feed all of them. Their entire life cycle lasts 10 days, so the generations multiply rapidly. What it takes mammals many thousands of years to accomplish, fruit flies can do, and have done, in less than a decade.

Ignorant creationists and ID proponents like to say that "a new species is never produced, the fruit flies always remain fruit flies." They simply sum up evolutionary experiments on fruit flies by saying "Once a fruit fly, always a fruit fly." However, that is as ignorant as saying ancient primates never became humans because once a primate, always a primate. Both apes and humans are primates still and one species of fruit fly can be more different from another species of fruit fly than a man is different from a monkey or even a dog. The first mistake is that the term "fruit fly" is not really a label for a species. The term "fruit fly" used this way doesn't mean anything technical or scientific in this case, it's just a common phrase. Technically they're Drosophila and there's more than one Drosophila species because Drosophila is a Genus, not a species. There are thousands of species of fly we might call "fruit flies," that's just a fly you find around fruit, and most of them are not even Drosophila. The standard Drosophila melanogaster, the fly used in most research, is just one species, there are other Drosophila, Drosophila Pseudoobscura, Drosophila simulans, Drosophila virilis and Drosophila birchii to name just a few.

Scientists have published the "complete" genomic sequences of many species of Drosophila and they have been observed to speciate both in the wild and in the lab, several times.

For those who understand, this research is incredible evidence for the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, and so, of course, creationists don't get fruit fly research any more than they would get research on molds, yeast and white mice.


It seems that the "fruit fly" research Palin mentioned has little to do with Drosophila according to RPM's post, "They are NOT fruit flies." The olive fruit flies Palin was referring are real fruit flies (Tephritids), an agricultural pest. She was actually criticizing applied research (as opposed to basic), which makes her comments even more absurd.

1 comment:

Pete said...

Great post. I agree with you on all accounts and wish that we had more "sane" people to observe the anti-intellectual/anti-science bent of the current Republican party.

Now if we could only get the "old-time" Republicans to realize how their party has been hijacked...