The Wisdom of Doubt, Part II

Yesterday President Bush vetoed a bill that would have provided for federal funding of some embryonic stem cell research. John Amato writes,

He falsely asked for Congress to stop politicizing Stem Cell research, but that’s what he did today and took a ridiculous moral position. This is why we need separation of Church and State. Religion cannot dictate Science. Here’s the role call of the vote … Update: Fact Check Bush on Stem Cell via The Democratic Caucus’s Senate Journal. 68 percent support funding, in the latest ABC/Post poll to measure views on the issue, in April.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times,

“Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” Mr. Bush said during a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House. He called America “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.”

Picking up where the last post left off … Our culture places a high value on certainty and considers not-knowing a flaw. And moral clarity is ballyhooed as the sine qua non of all that is Good and Righteous.

As I’ve written elsewhere, achieving moral clarity is remarkably easy.

First, take a firm and inflexible position on a moral question. Then, studiously ignore any factors that might call that opinion into question. If the factors refuse to go away, make up lies to neutralize them.

See? Nothin’ to it.

If you are foolish enough to take all facets of an issue into account, you risk not being clear. In fact, the more gut-level honest you are about a messy, unpleasant issue, the less clear you are likely to be. And this is a problem for conservatives, who by nature cannot stand ambiguity. One of the most basic traits of conservatives, in fact, is a compulsion to sort the world into rigid binary categories — right and wrong, good and evil, white and black. Any muddling of categories sends them into nervous fits. But once all things and all issues are properly sorted, they can relax and bask in their moral clarity.

The standard way to achieve moral clarity on the abortion issue, for example, is to completely disregard women. Examples of such “clear” moralizing include this op ed by Dean Barnett and this one by Michael Gerson. See also Digby:

This is not the first time I’ve heard this argument and it’s always quite compelling to hear a man make such a stark and simple logical argument about something which others seem to find so complicated. I suspect that is because there is one person involved in this great moral question who is rarely mentioned in such pieces. In fact, if you read the whole thing you will find that this man has managed to write an entire article about fetuses, pregnancy and abortion without even noting in passing the fully formed sentient human being involved so intimately in this that the whole argument takes place inside her body.

Abortion presents a painful choice, and although I oppose criminalization I understand why people agonize over this issue. But embryonic stem cell research? Particularly when there are boatloads of frozen embryos that will almost certainly be discarded anyway? You’re balancing the “rights” of a cluster of frozen cells against sentient children and adults suffering from terrible diseases. I see absolutely nothing “ethical” in Bush’s veto.

Weirdly, people who have “moral clarity” that embryonic stem cell research is bad often are compelled to lie — to us, to each other, to themselves — about the facts of the embryonic stem cell issue.

Satyam writes for Think Progress:

Faced with the opposition of nearly two-thirds of Americans, White House spokesperson Tony Snow today attempted to spin the veto as a positive development. Snow claimed that Bush has a “unique and unprecedented role” in supporting stem cell research, and attacked critics for “misstating” the administration’s policies, claiming that Bush was in fact “putting science before ideology.”

In an attempt to drum up support for less potent alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, Snow falsely characterized the science behind stem cell research, claiming scientists “are not even entirely sure about what the possible benefits of embryonic stem cells [are].” …

…Snow’s claim doesn’t pass the laugh test. Contrary to what Snow says, Bush has held a backwards and overly ideological perspective on scientific research. In 2001, Bush neutered the ability of scientists to engage in stem cell research by curbing funding for new embryonic lines. In 2006, he vetoed legislation lifting those restrictions. Even Bush’s top scientists have criticized him for these actions.

Currently, “not a single scientist who is pursuing research on any kind of cell has said that research involving embryonic stem cells should stop.” And scientists have seen potential treatments from embryonic stem cell research for a variety of ailments.

The only thing stopping federally-funded stem cell research from progressing is the White House’s insistence on putting right-wing ideology ahead of science.

UPDATE: More on the administration’s misinformation here and here.

As I said, whenever any messy facts get between you and moral clarity, just lie about them. That’s the ticket.

There is something self-evidently screwy about “ethics” that value frozen blastocysts above children and adults suffering and dying from terrible disease. But “moral clarity” on the stem cell issue — born of a stubborn refusal to look at all facets of the issue honestly — results in myriad unfortunate side effects. As explained here, for example, thanks to morally clear policies doctors performing in vitro fertilization cannot research ways to reduce multiple births. And multiple births increase the risks for both babies and mothers.

In other words, the rigid “right-to-life” policy is killing babies.

Essentially, “moral clarity” is about bullshitting yourself. It’s about not dealing honestly and compassionately with all aspects of a moral issue. Instead, the “morally clear” begin with the position they want to take and work backward to justify it, scamming themselves and others when necessary to achieve the desired outcome. This twisted way of achieving “clarity” is founded in the dualistic thinking Glenn Greenwald writes about. This dualism assumes one side of an issue must be “good” and the other must be “bad.” Thus, in much anti-choice literature embryos can talk and women who choose abortions are either ignored or assumed to have evil or selfish motivations. But real-world moral issues often involve multiple “good” sides. It is actually quite rare for people and facts to so neatly sort themselves into “good” and “bad” boxes as the morally clear want to sort them. And by achieving “clarity” based on lies and false assumptions, the “clarifiers” actually create more pain and complication.

Moral clarity takes inflexible positions based on rigid, narrow concepts of good and bad, life and death, self and other; see the “One Watch” series for further explanation of this. The morally clear like to talk about “standing firm.” The philosophical Taoists would tell you this is a bone-headed and disastrous way to approach morality. The Tao (way) is harmonious and does not take sides. Taoists call the Tao “soft,” and like water it naturally finds its best course without having to be forced. You understand it not by its actions but by its effects. The American Right is the Anti-Tao, always striving to impose their hard will on others and refusing to acknowledge how much harm they do and how much suffering they cause.

In John Wu’s translation of verse 38 of the Tao Teh Ching (Shambhala, 1989), I think the word ceremony can be read as either “organized religion” or “social convention.” I say that because other translations use ritual or etiquette instead of ceremony. Other than that, I think the verse applies as well to 21st century America as it did to China in 500 BCE.

High virtue is non-virtuous;
Therefore it has Virtue.
Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness;
Therefore it has no Virtue.

High Virtue makes no fuss and has no private ends to serve:
Low Virtue not only fusses but has private ends to serve.

High humanity fusses but has no private ends to serve:
High morality not only fusses but has private ends to serve.
High ceremony fusses but finds to response;
Then it tries to enforce itself with rolled-up sleeves.

Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue.
Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity.
Failing humanity, man resorts to morality.
Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.
Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty;
It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder.

As to foreknowledge, it is only the flower of Tao,
And the beginning of folly.

Therefore, the full-grown man sets his heart upon the substance rather than the husk;
Upon the fruit rather than the flower.
Truly, he prefers what is within to what is without.

See also:Mr. Bush’s Stem Cell Diversion.” Click here for The Mahablog stem cell archives.

How Not to Save Embryos

Liza Mundy writes in today’s Washington Post that “Children are born every day whose health and well-being are permanently affected by the funding ban for embryo research.”

This isn’t just about the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells. The stem cell restrictions are indirectly resulting in an increase in babies born with health problems such as cerebral palsy.

Here’s how: The popularity of in vitro fertilization and other fertilization treatments has resulted in a dramatic increase in multiple births. But the human womb is designed to carry one baby at a time. So the rise in multiple births has resulted in more babies with health problems.

The number of babies born as triplets, quadruplets or even more rose from about 900 in 1972 to 7,275 in 2004. That same year, the highest number of twins ever were born — 132,000, nearly double the number born in 1980. Not coincidentally, there has also been a rise in premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.

Some of these problems could be eliminated if doctors performing in vitro fertilization could learn more about embryos. But federal law prohibits the research.

In 1996 a law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment took effect prohibiting funding research involving the creation or destruction of embryos. The provision is regularly passed as part of the Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill. It has become a conservative touchstone.

The upshot is that scientists who receive federal funding — and most good scientists do — cannot use any part of it, even indirectly, to study the embryos that IVF creates so as to learn how to better assess their viability. “There is so much we do not know about the human embryo that we need to,” said scientist James Trimarchi. “The truth is, we really don’t know anything.”

Doctors performing in vitro fertilization routinely implant multiple embryos to ensure at least one will be viable. But if all of them are viable — hello, quadruplets. Further, doctors may be making other mistakes in the handling of the fertilized eggs that could compromise the long-term health of “in vitro” babies.

U.S. scientists acknowledged that there is much they don’t know, including whether embryos are affected by the media in which they are cultured, and the long-term impact of the increasingly invasive lab techniques that IVF now often involves.

These complications arise from a peculiar belief, held by many Christian conservatives, that a human blastocyst has the same inherent value as a baby or child or adult. An aggressive, politicized religious Right has imposed its will on the rest of us, knocking science and sensibility out of the way in their single-minded determination to “protect” embryos. And their “protection” of embryos hurts embryos.

I think one could make a moral argument that we shouldn’t be doing procedures like in vitro fertilization if we’re going to be half-assed about it.

In a related story, Rick Weiss reports in WaPo that researchers think they have found a way to get stem cells with the same properties as embryonic stem cells from tissue other than embryos.

Three teams of scientists said today they had coaxed ordinary mouse skin cells to become what are effectively embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos in the process — an advance that, if it works with human cells, could revolutionize stem cell research and defuse one of the hottest bioethical controversies of the decade.

In work being published online today, the scientists reported two new ways of turning back the biological clocks of skin cells growing in laboratory dishes. Thus rejuvenated, the cells gave rise to daughter cells that were able to become all the parts needed to make a new mouse.

Of course, it could be years before the researchers know whether this will work with humans, or if the resulting cells really do have the same properties of embryonic stem cells. But conservatives have already seized upon this research to argue that scientists don’t need embryos to do stem cell research.

“A human is not a mouse, so a lot more work has to be done,” said Marius Wernig, who led one team with Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

But opponents of human embryo research said the findings bolster their argument that stem cell science can progress apace without harming human embryos.

“Morally and practically, this new approach appears to be far superior,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Seems to me that even if the new process eliminates the need to destroy embryos to get stem cells, we are left with our current blind spots about embryos. And we’ll still have too many premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.

We do seem to have a lot of insufficiently developed brains in this country, don’t we?

Respecting Life

Emptypockets has a long rumination about embryonic stem cell research at The Next Hurrah.

That subject of desecration and its relationship to organ donation is, I think, a more apt context for discussing embryonic stem cells than the abortion rubric under which stem cells are usually put. Unlike a fetus, which likely would become a person, an unimplanted blastocyst is terminal and the moral issues about how we treat it are closer to end-of-life issues than conception ones. At least, that analogy is more apt biologically — whether it is helpful politically, I don’t know.

What does emerge from this analysis is, for me, a better understanding of what may be on the minds of stem cell research opponents. The sanctity of life may mean, for them, not only the call to preserve life itself — something which is, for an unimplanted blastocyst, impossible — but the demand to treat the elements of human life with respect and dignity. Some opponents may be appalled not by the demise of a ball of cells, but by what they see as an undignified death, in the polished steel of a tissue culture hood with a lab-coated graduate student bearing a pipetteman in place of a funeral Mass.

Call it a desecration or just plain creepy, that cold alien-autopsy vision of life’s end may be what drives some segments of the opposition. It is partly relieved by shifting the view to patients the research might help, just as rabbis struggling with organ donation may yield most often when they confront the potential for saving another life. But it may also be partly relieved by writing into future stem cell legislation explicit language requiring the blastocysts be treated with respect, and by acknowledging in debate that scientists recognize this concern and are sensitive to it.

I doubt opponents of embryonic stem cell research will be appeased by promises to treat blastocysts “respectfully.” However —

I’ve gone on and on about life and the moral argument for embryonic stem cell research already, and I don’t want to repeat all that now. Let’s explode everyone’s head today and look at some undiluted Zen.

Living beings are the result of many factors and conditions. Some of these are the presence of sperm, an egg, the condition of fertility, and the presence of a being desiring a form. Once living beings are created, there are other conditions necessary for their survival, such as sunshine, warmth, air (or the absence of these) as well as water and food. Many of the things that make up our world were once alive and depended on these same conditions, like wood, paper, cotton, wool, and oil products. Even stones and diamonds, and the planet itself, are the result of many related factors. All causes and conditions are interrelated. Yet, because of our conditioning and our delusions, we are easily confused and distracted from seeing our true relationship to all things. I think the nature of delusion is that it makes us feel separate, giving the illusion of duality.

In Taking the Path of Zen, Aitken Roshi writes, “There is fundamentally no birth and no death as we die and are born. When we kill the spirit that may realize this fact, we are violating this precept. We kill that spirit in ourselves and in others when we brutalize human potential, animal potential, earth potential.”

Another facet:

In the first precept, the crucial section is, “In the sphere of the everlasting Dharma, Not nursing a view of extinction…” The Dharmakaya is complete, ultimate reality. It is selfless and empty and is the origin from which everything arises and to which everything returns. The Dharmakaya is never “born” into the world of appearances, so it cannot die. We arise, together with our world, as human beings. Each moment we arise from and return to unity with everything; we are all children of our common parent – the Dharmakaya. When we consider the questions of “killing” or “not killing” we have already divided our world into self and other. If we see our world only through human self-interest we will miss the underlying unity that is our common origin. When we are unaware of this underlying unity, the best that we can hope for is a respect for all life.

From this perspective, to deny the potential of a blastocyst to heal the sick — a blastocyst that would otherwise remain frozen until it had lost all potential — is not respecting life at all, but denying life. Belittling Michael J. Fox for the sake of keeping some cells frozen is not respecting life. Belittling, even lying about, the potential of embryonic stem cell research is not respecting life.


The First Grave Precept is “Affirm life—do not kill.” What does it mean to kill the environment? It’s the worst kind of killing. We are decimating many species. There is no way that these life forms can ever return to the earth. The vacuum their absence creates cannot be filled in any other way, and such a vacuum affects everything else in the ecosystem, no matter how infinitesimally small it is. We are losing species by the thousands every year, the last of their kind on the face of this great Earth. And because someone in South America is doing it, that doesn’t mean we’re not responsible. We’re as responsible as if we are the one who clubs an infant seal or burns a hectare of tropical forest. It is as if we were squeezing the life out of ourselves. Killing the lakes with acid rain. Dumping chemicals into the rivers so that they cannot support any life. Polluting our skies so our children choke on the air they breath. Life is nonkilling. The seed of the Buddha grows continuously. Maintain the wisdom life of Buddha and do not kill life.

Treat the air respectfully, and the seas respectfully, and birds and bugs and everything else on the planet respectfully. And we should treat living beings respectfully. Picketing an abortion clinic while wearing shoes made with slave labor in a third world country is not respecting life. Opposing abortion by belittling the lives of women — screaming at women entering abortion clinics, for example, or calling them selfish — is not respecting life.

Making excuses for civilian deaths in Iraq is not respecting life.


We can play around with the word “state.” “State” is a condition or manner of being. In Buddhism, mind-states determine our thoughts, words, and actions which in turn create karma and its fruits. In a worldly sense “state” means position or rank or class. It also means a polity or nation. America’s leaders point their fingers at an “axis of evil” states. As far as they are concerned, it is just fine to despise Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. They add other enemies like Cuba, Syria, and even France (without whom there would never have been a United States). Despising these states and the people who live in them goes against the spiritual reality that all beings are Buddha, all beings are God. They may as well be pointing at themselves. [p. 3]

Yes, of course we should treat the blastocysts with respect. This means freeing them from freezing and allowing them to be life — if not as an embryo, then as a treatment for a sick child or a crippled adult.

It’s all One.


I’m not talking about Michael J. Fox’s television ad for Claire McCaskill. I’m talking about rightie reaction to it.

Apparently embryonic stem cell research is a big issue in the McCaskill-Talent senatorial campaign in Missouri. The Democrat, McCaskill, is fer it, and the Republican, Talent, is agin’ it. Sam Hananel of Forbes describes the ad made by Fox:

His body visibly wracked by tremors, actor Michael J. Fox speaks out for Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill in a television ad that promotes her support for embryonic stem cell research.

“As you might know I care deeply about stem cell research,” says 45-year-old actor, who has struggled with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade. “In Missouri you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures.”

McCaskill has made support for the research a key part of her campaign to unseat Sen. Jim Talent. The Republican incumbent opposes the research as unethical, saying it destroys human embryos.

The new ad debuted prominently Saturday night during Game 1 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers and will continue airing statewide this week, a campaign spokeswoman said.

I bet everybody in the state saw it, then.

Debate over stem cell research looms large in the state, where voters are considering a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to protect all federally allowed forms of the research, including embryonic stem cell research.

“Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research,” Fox says in the 30-second spot. “Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope.”

Rightie reaction? John Amato has an audio of Rush Limbaugh accusing Fox of faking his symptoms. “He is an actor, after all,” says Rush. (Rush is from a very wealthy and influential southeast Missouri family.)

Dean Barnett, writing at Hugh Hewitt’s blog, disgusts me just as much. I have annotated the quote with footnotes.

By way of response, let me first say that I think almost any kind of ad in support of a political campaign is fair game. If a candidate goes too far, the public will punish him or her. So while I find the Michael J. Fox ad crass, tasteless, [1] exploitative and absurd, I fully support Claire McCaskill’s right to shoot herself in the foot. [2]

The most distasteful aspect of the ad is the way it exploits Michael J. Fox’s physical difficulties. [3] Fox is an actor, and clearly knew what he was doing when he signed up for the spot – no victim points for him for having been manipulated by the McCaskill campaign.[4] The ad’s aim is to make us feel so bad about Fox’s condition that logical debate is therefore precluded. [5] You either agree with Fox, or you sadistically endorse his further suffering as Fox accuses Jim Talent of doing.

This is demagoguery analogous to the pernicious and pathetic chickenhawk argument. The whole “chickenhawk” logic is that only people who have served in the military are entitled to have an opinion on military matters. Thus, the ideas of non-veterans don’t warrant a hearing and thus don’t need rebutting.[6]

While Michael J. Fox (like me) has some skin in the stem cell game that most people don’t, that doesn’t give him any special appreciation of the moral issues involved with embryonic stem cell research. Sick people may want cures and treatments more than the healthy population, but that doesn’t make them/us experts on morality. [7]

My comments:

[1] I’m sorry that Dean Barnett takes offense at the sight of other peoples’ suffering. I’m sure that in Dean Barnett’s perfect world, sick and handicapped people would be kept hidden away so the sight of them does not upset healthy people.

[2] On the other hand, crass remarks about Michael J. Fox’s infirmities are certain to rally voters to the Republican cause.

[3] Not only are physical infirmities tasteless; they also confer an unfair advantage.

[4] Fox was “manipulated” by McCaskill? Apparently people with disabilities have lost the right to be free agents.

[5] Ooo, “logical” debate! I wrote about “logical” morality yesterday. I’ll come back to it again in a minute.

[6] A stirring argument. Too bad that Burnett’s “chickenhawk” is a straw bird.

[7] Actually, I’d say the Fox ad is less an argument for morality than a test of morality. If you see the ad and feel compassion for Fox, you pass. If you whine about how tasteless, unfair, exploitative, or illogical it is, you flunk.

Mr. Barnett, for reasons argued here, flunks.

The Anchoress claims Fox is fighting for “bad science.” I’ve already explained here and here that it’s righties like the Anchoress who lie through their teeth about the science. Sister Toldjah, no lightweight in the idiot department, compares the ad to race baiting. (Go ahead and pause to ponder that one, if you need to.)

At NRO, Kathryn Jean Lopez ladles the lies on thick and heavy by claiming the issue is about cloning. She links to this anti-science web site that says —

When you see Amendment 2 at your polling place, you will be asked to decide whether to “ban human cloning or attempted cloning.” Sounds good so far, right? Who’s in favor of human cloning anyway?

But the 2,100-word Constitutional Amendment—which you won’t see on election day—actually creates legal protection for human cloning. Hard to believe? It’s true. Amendment 2 only outlaws reproductive cloning, which no one in Missouri (or anywhere else on earth) is doing.

Meanwhile, it protects anyone who wants to clone human beings for science experiments. Amendment 2 glosses over the issue of lab-created human life with complicated phrases like “Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.” But cloning is cloning, and Amendment 2 would put this ethically questionable practice beyond the reach of state law.

And the Big Lie is, of course, that non-reproductive cloning, also called “therapeutic” cloning, does not clone “human beings.” In therapeutic cloning the cloned cells do not develop into an embryo but instead are used only to develop stem cells. A stem cell is no more a “being” than a toenail.

The fact is that righties are just plain on the wrong side of the embryonic stem cell issue. They’re on the wrong side of it both morally and scientifically. Whine all they like, that’s not going to change. I’m afraid they’ll be whining for a while.

BTW, McCaskill is my adopted Senate candidate. Please help fight the forces of darkness and donate a buck or two by clicking here.

Update: See Jonathan Cohn, who interviews William J. Weiner M.D., professor and chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and director of the Parkinson’s clinic there. Dr. Weiner said:

What you are seeing on the video is side effects of the medication. He has to take that medication to sit there and talk to you like that. … He’s not over-dramatizing. … [Limbaugh] is revealing his ignorance of Parkinson’s disease, because people with Parkinson’s don’t look like that at all when they’re not taking their medication. They look stiff, and frozen, and don’t move at all. … People with Parkinson’s, when they’ve had the disease for awhile, are in this bind, where if they don’t take any medication, they can be stiff and hardly able to talk. And if they do take their medication, so they can talk, they get all of this movement, like what you see in the ad.

Hat tip John Amato.

Update update: This is rude.

Never Enough

Scientists have figured out how to extract stem cells from blastocysts without killing the blastocyst, says Nicholas Wade in the New York Times.

The new technique would be performed on a two-day-old embryo, after the fertilized egg has divided into eight cells, known as blastomeres. In fertility clinics, where the embryo is available outside the woman in the normal course of in vitro fertilization, one of these blastomeres can be removed for diagnostic tests, like for Down syndrome.

The embryo, now with seven cells, can be implanted in the woman if no defect is found. Many such embryos have grown into apparently healthy babies over the 10 years or so the diagnostic tests have been used. …

…“By growing the biopsied cell overnight,” he said, “the resulting cells could be used for both P.G.D. and the generation of stem cells without affecting the subsequent chances of having a child.”

Great breakthrough, huh? Now researchers can get all the embryonic stem cells they could ask for without killing blastocysts. But it looks like the scientists needn’t have bothered.

But the new method, reported yesterday by researchers at Advanced Cell Technology on the Web site of the journal Nature, had little immediate effect on longstanding objections of the White House and some Congressional leaders yesterday. It also brought objections from critics who warned of possible risk to the embryo and the in vitro fertilization procedure itself, in which embryos are generated from a couple’s egg and sperm.

Um, but it says the blastomeres were being removed anyway, doesn’t it?

Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, suggested that the new procedure would not satisfy the objections of Mr. Bush, who vetoed legislation in July that would have expanded federally financed embryonic stem cell research. Though Ms. Lawrimore called it encouraging that scientists were moving away from destroying embryos, she said: “Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions. This technique does not resolve those concerns.”

What ethical questions? Do they want the blastocyst to sign a consent form?

“Embryos cannot give consent and the people they could become will obviously have had no say on whether cells should have been removed. Even if they are not destroying the embryo they are still putting it at some risk.

“A lot of these researchers make claims which are later disproved or turn out not to be as they promised, so we will have to wait and see if it really is as it seems.”

The Los Angeles Times explains:

What could possibly be the objection? The National Catholic Bioethics Center has two, for starters. One is that the extracted cell has the potential to develop into an embryo. Never mind that those extracted cells aren’t now developed into embryos when extracted for genetic testing or other uses.

The other is that the embryo is undergoing a medical procedure — the extraction of one cell — not for its own benefit but for the cause of science. If the cell can also be used for genetic testing, however, it is being used for that embryo’s benefit. And even if it is not, there are many other procedures — organ donation, for example — that do not benefit the host but are nonetheless viewed not only as acceptable but as moral.


President Bush offered little encouragement Wednesday and, if anything, raised the bar higher, suggesting he would not be comfortable unless embryos were not involved at all.

Well, we don’t want to make the President uncomfortable, do we?

Social conservatives already have begun complaining that the new technique falls short. They say the method does injure nascent embryos, and they question whether the cell that is removed from an embryo has the potential to develop on its own.

There’s no point trying to appease, reason, or compromise with the Fetus People. Say the words “embryonic stem cell” to them, and their warped little brains promptly go to work manufacturing new reasons why embryonic stem cells are bad. Unfortunately we’re all being held hostage by their ersatz “morality.”

People With One Watch, Part III

    I celebrate myself;
    And what I assume you shall assume;
    For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you. (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

(Note: This is a continuation of the previous two posts; if you haven’t read those, much of this won’t make sense.)

Embryonic stem cell research, from two perspectives. Elizabeth C. writes,

Regarding stem cell research, destroying human life at any time prior to its ability to sustain itself is murder. To the thinking mind, the term “harvesting” is descriptive enough to prevent legalization. We are messing with life itself, believing ourselves so scientifically advanced that we can get away with it. It’s just a matter of time before the legalized slaughter of the lambs via abortion finds us unprepared for the ultimate results: A world deprived of what would have been, had life been allowed. …

… My beloved grandchildren are proof enough for me that lives lost via abortion and stem cell research would have been lives loved, had their biological parents not made the easiest choice in today’s McDonald’s society, here today, gone tomorrow, whatever the reason.

The other perspective: Laurie Strongin writes in the Washington Post about the death of her son, Henry, who was born with Fanconi’s anemia. “Our only hope lay on the frontiers of science, in human embryo and stem cell research,” she writes. She found a doctor named Mark Hughes, then chief of reproductive and prenatal genetics at the National Institutes of Health, who had pioneered a stem cell procedure he thought could save Henry.

But on Jan. 9, 1997, an article in The Washington Post reported that Hughes was violating a two-year-old federal ban on human embryo research with his work on PGD.

Under the ban, Hughes was barred from performing that work as part of his position at NIH. Refusing to abandon his research or the families who were depending on it, he set up a lab as part of an in vitro fertility program at a private hospital across the street in Bethesda. But he was considered in violation of the federal law because his work at the hospital employed NIH research fellows and used NIH equipment — a refrigerator.

Over the following weeks, the daily headlines all read the same to me: Henry is going to die. As our doctor was forced to resign from his job and faced congressional hearings, Henry’s blood counts declined. We searched for alternatives to PGD, but none existed. The politically triggered delay had stolen precious time in our race to save Henry’s life. On Dec. 11, 2002, he died in my arms.

The procedure that Henry was denied because of a refrigerator was the same one used to save the life of Molly Nash, who also was born with Fanconi’s anemia. Today Molly is eleven years old and free from disease.

The odds that any particular blastocyst, once frozen, will ever become a baby are, well, long. It’s likely most will never be thawed. A large part of those that are thawed will not survive thawing. And of the select few that survive thawing and are implanted in a uterus, only some will result in a pregnancy. Yet by some twisted moral algebra, these blastocysts are considered more precious (to some people, like Elizabeth C.) than a child like Henry.

Recent news stories say that about 400,000 surplus frozen embryos are in storage in America. But according to this article in the current issue of Mother Jones, the number 400,000 represents the embryos stored in 2002. Four years later, there is every reason to believe the actual number is higher — close to half a million — and growing rapidly.

In other words, during the time it took for about 110 “snowflake children” to be born, another 200,000 blastocysts went into storage.

The Fetus People have persuaded themselves that since only a small percentage of stored embryos have been designated by their “parents” to be made available for research, the remainder are just sitting around waiting for Mommy and Daddy to thaw them out and pop them in the oven. This is, of course, nonsense. As the Mother Jones article linked above makes clear, the in vitro process requires creating a surplus of blastocysts to achieve one pregnancy. But once treatment is over many parents struggle with the choice of storing, donating, or destroying the leftovers. Many couples choose to store the blastocysts even though they have no intention of using them —

[A] woman described her embryos as a psychic insurance policy, providing “intangible solace” against the fundamental parental terror that an existing child might die. “What if [my daughter] got leukemia?” said yet another, who considered her frozen embryos a potential source of treatment. A patient put the same notion more bluntly: “You have the idea that in a warehouse somewhere there’s a replacement part should yours get lost, or there is something wrong with them.”

For others, embryos carried a price tag that made them seem like a consumer good; a few parents considered destroying them to be a “waste” of all the money spent on treatment.

Michael Kinsley, who supports stem cell research, writes that “if embryos are human beings with full human rights, fertility clinics are death camps.”

In any particular case, fertility clinics try to produce more embryos than they intend to implant. Then — like the Yale admissions office (only more accurately) — they pick and choose among the candidates, looking for qualities that make for a better human being. If you don’t get into Yale, you have the choice of attending a different college. If the fertility clinic rejects you, you get flushed away — or maybe frozen until the day you can be discarded without controversy.

And fate isn’t much kinder to the embryos that make this first cut. Usually several of them are implanted in the hope that one will survive. Or, to put it another way, in the hope that all but one will not survive. And fertility doctors do their ruthless best to make these hopes come true.

Kinsley argues that if one genuinely believes that destroying a blastocyst to extract stem cells is murder, then logically one must also be opposed to in vitro fertilization. The routine practices of fertility clinics destroy far more blastocysts than would ever likely be destroyed for stem cell research. “And yet, no one objects, or objects very loudly,” Kinsley says. “President Bush actually praised the work of fertility clinics in his first speech announcing restrictions on stem cells.”

The fact is, opponents of stem cell research routinely lie — to themselves, to each other, to anyone who will listen — in order to defend their belief that embryonic stem cell research is immoral. This suggests to me that the real reasons people object to stem cell research have less to do with moral principle than with some deeply submerged but potent fear. And this takes us back to elective ignorance. Something about flushing all those blastocysts makes the Fetus People uncomfortable in a way that condemning Henry Strongin to death does not. The arguments they make against stem cell research, which are mostly a pile of lies and distortions, are not the reasons they are opposed to stem cell research. They are the rationalizations created to justify their opposition.

Exactly what it is that frightens the Fetus People so is beyond the scope of a blog post. I hope the social psychologists will get out their chi squares and p values and get to work on finding the answer. But I hypothesize that many of them have years of ego investment in anti-abortion propaganda, to the point that they’re chanting “life begins at conception” in their sleep. If they give so much as a millimeter of ground on the “conception” issue their entire worldview, which includes their self-identity, will crumble apart. Hence, they are less concerned with saving Henry Strongin than with saving blastocysts. Hence, elective ignorance.

I’ve explained my views on “when life begins” before. Many on the Right are absolutely certain that “conception” is the only possible answer, but in fact there are a multitude of different answers that can be arrived at both scientifically and philosophically. As this essay explains nicely, across time and cultures there have been many different opinions as to when life “begins.” Even the Catholic Church has changed its papal mind several times in its history.

The Fetus People argue that since a human blastocyst is human, and alive, it must be human life and therefore entitled to all the rights and privileges and protections the law allows. Others of us think claiming a blastocyst is equal in value to, say, Nelson Mandela is self-evidently absurd; DNA does not equal personhood. And “human life” doesn’t explain why blastocysts are protected with more ferocity than Henry Strongin. We might giggle at Senator Brownback’s Amazing Talking Embryos, but in truth we’re allowing medical and scientific policies to be set by people with simplistic, childish, even primitive ideas about medicine and science. Not funny.

As I explained in Part I of this little trilogy, we’re all conditioned from birth to understand ourselves and the world around us in a certain way. Ultimately our understanding of blastocysts and Henrys and their relative value is based on how we understand some pretty basic stuff, like selfness and beingness, life and death, us and other. Those who insist that life “begins” at conception have a very rigid and narrow understanding of these matters.

I’m going to attempt to explain my understanding as best I can, just as an example. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, which is not a problem as far as I’m concerned.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, it seems to me that life doesn’t “begin” at all. However it got to this planet four billion years ago, it hasn’t been observed to “begin” since. Instead, life expresses itself in myriad forms. And whatever it is you are is a result of a process stretching back those four billion years. Calling any point a “beginning” seems arbitrary to me.

What is the self? If you’ve ever done time in a Zen monastery, that’s the question the Roshi brings up, over and over again. Kensho might be defined as a paradigm shift of self-ness; a realization that you are not what you thought you were. The realized self is not something that can be explained, but a basic (if crude) analogy is that an individual “self” is a phenomenon of life, as a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. When a wave begins nothing is added to the ocean, and when a wave ceases nothing is taken away from the ocean. Although a wave is a distinct phenomenon, it is also ocean. A person is a distinct being, yet at the same time a person is the great ocean of Being. At birth, nothing is gained; at death, nothing is lost.

So, while I am I and you are you, at the same time I am you and you are me, whether we like it or not.

As I said, this is very crude, and if you ever get interested in Buddhism don’t attach to it. Concepts are always short of reality. But if you understand yourself this way, then you understand all individuals and organisms throughout space and time as a great interconnected process. And you and me and all the blastocysts in the IVF clinics and all the suffering people waiting for the cures that stem cell research promises are all One. In a sense, every atom belonging to one of us as good belongs to everybody.

The “life begins at conception” model, on the other hand, assumes that at conception the individual is broken off from all the rest of Creation and hence is alone in the universe. Seems cold, I say. The Buddha taught that understanding yourself this way leads to grasping and greed, which is the source of all suffering. (See The Four Noble Truths.) Thus the Fetus People are making us all miserable with their campaigns to Save Every Blastocyst while keeping people who have already dissipated back into the Ocean of Being hooked up to life support. At the base of this is (I postulate) their own existential fear.

That’s my take, which you are free to dismiss; I don’t insist everyone share my worldview. But I argue that there is nothing moral about saving surplus blastocysts from being used in medical research, just as there is nothing principled about lying to yourself and others to justify your opinions. Indeed, from a Buddhist perspective it is deeply immoral to keep hundreds of thousands of blastocysts in cold storage — where they are not expressing life — when they could be used to alleviate suffering and express life through other individuals.

If you respect life, you don’t waste it.

    What do you think has become of the young and old men?
    And what do you think has become of the women and children?
    They are alive and well somewhere;
    The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
    And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
    And ceas’d the moment life appear’d. (Walt Whitman)

People With One Watch, Part II

This is a continuation of the previous post. I want to look at elective ignorance and the stem cell controversy. However, there are some basic points I want to clarify in this post before I go on to the main point.

“Embryonic” stem cells are derived from the cells that make up the inner cell mass of a blastocyst. Although sometimes a blastocyst is described as an embryo in a very early stage, in fact it is a conceptus in a pre-embryonic state. In humans, a blastocyst develops in the fallopian tube from the fertilized egg (zygote) and then moves (usually) to the uterus, where it implants itself. A pregnancy begins with the implantation of the blastocyst, which then develops into an embryo.

Embryonic stem cells are controversial because acquiring new cells requires destroying a blastocyst. Research scientists want to use the excess blastocysts stored at in vitro fertilization clinics that are going to be destroyed anyway, so there is no need to fertilize an egg for the purpose of obtaining stem cells. Those who object say the blastocyst is a human life, so destroying it is murder. Eventually embryonic stem cells for research may be obtained by cloning, which of course is controversial also.

For the most part, blogosphere opinion on embryonic stem-cell research splits across right-left lines, with the occasional exception. The Right is certain that conducting embryonic stem cell research is immoral. The Left is certain that not conducting embryonic stem cell research is wasteful, and I would call it immoral. To the Left, the Right’s arguments are silly. To the Right, the Left’s arguments are sinister.

As many on the Right point out, the President’s recent veto of the stem cell bill does not result in a ban on embryonic stem cell research, but maintains a ban on federal funding for research. Research with other funding can still be conducted. There is even an exception — embryonic stem cell lines that already existed before August 2001 can be used in federally funded research. And federal funding is available for research on adult stem cells. The Right believes federal policy is an acceptable compromise.

The Left points out that the stem cell lines available for federally funded research have been contaminated with mouse cells, which limits their use. The Left argues also that the ban on federal funds is close to a de facto ban. As this PBS Nova report points out,

Most basic biomedical science in this country—the early, exploratory research—is funded by federal dollars, with the National Institutes of Health taking the lead (to the tune of $20 billion in research-related funding a year). Scientists say that no field of research can flourish without access to this kind of government support. Yet the Harvard scientists you’ll meet in our NOVA scienceNOW segment are barred from using federal funds for the research we describe. If they already head government-funded labs, none of the equipment they’ve purchased can be used to create brand new human embryonic stem cells, to work with any such cells created after 2001, or to create cloned human embryos for stem cell research. That means not a microscope, not a petri dish, not one glass beaker. Scientist Doug Melton, who receives private funds from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has gone so far as to equip an entirely separate lab, at an undisclosed location, for this work.

From the American Society on Hematology:

With fewer opportunities for federal funding in human embryonic stem cell research, private sector and state efforts are gaining prominence, outside of the federal government’s oversight, control, and peer review mechanisms. Furthermore, several foreign countries are encouraging and/or actively investing in stem cell research, thereby posing the potential threat of loss of American scientific prominence in this emerging field, possible emigration of the best and brightest American scientists, and definite diminution in the number of talented foreign graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and senior scientists who otherwise would come to the US for their training and to conduct research in this important area of scientific inquiry.

Adult stem cells can be taken from many parts of a human body, but most come from bone marrow. Contrary to claims from the Right, adult stems cells are not a substitute for embryonic stem cells. Both types of stem cells hold therapeutic promise, but not the same promise. Adult and embryonic stem cells have different properties and different potentials. According to the International Society for Stem Cell Research, embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can be developed into many types of cells. Adult stem cells have so far not been found to have this property. On the other hand, adult stem cells have been used successfully to treat blood disorders. There is ongoing research into their use in treating breast cancer, coronary artery diseases, and other conditions. Adult stem cell research is important, also, but claims that adult stem cells have the same potential as embryonic stem cells are simply not true, based on research so far.

Another difference is that, once established in culture, large numbers of stem cells from embryos can be grown for a long time — indefinitely, under the right circumstances — and these cells will retain their unique properties. This is not true of adult stem cells. Stem cells are also obtained from umbilical cord blood and the pulp under baby teeth, and these cells may survive culturing longer than adult cells. These cells haven’t yet been found to have the same pluripotent quality of embryonic cells.

Some on the Right claim there is no evidence whatsoever that embryonic stem cells hold any therapeutic promise. This claim is based on cherry-picked “facts” — see for example, this web page featuring some quotes pulled from newspaper articles — e.g., “Not a single embryonic stem cell has ever been tested in a human being, for any disease”; “‘No one in human embryonic-stem cells will tell you that therapies are around the corner”; etc. In fact, human embryonic stem cells have been successfully turned into insulin-producing cells, blood cells and nerve cells. As reported by Maggie Fox of Reuters (July 16):

“They hold promise in different areas today,” said David Meyer, co-director, of the Cedars-Sinai International Stem Cell Research Institute, which is set to formally open in Los Angeles on Monday

“Adult stem cells will lead to cures much sooner than embryonic. However, the potential for embryonic, once we understand the biology, will be the greater,” Meyer said in a telephone interview.

Groups such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the American Association for Cancer Research say work with embryonic stem cells is vital to understanding how to regenerate diseased or damaged cells, tissues and organs.

For example:

— On July 3, a team at the University of California at Los Angeles reported they had transformed human embryonic stem cells into immune cells known as T-cells — offering a way to restore immune systems ravaged by AIDS and other diseases.

— In June, a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore transplanted stem cells from mouse embryos into paralyzed rats and helped them walk again. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine have done similar work using human embryonic stem cells in rats.

Weirdly, people opposed to embryonic stem cells on moral grounds often are compelled to lie about the research:

David Prentice of the Family Research Council, which opposes embryonic stem-cell research, issued a statement saying adult stem-cell research was actively helping, or close to helping, people with at least 65 diseases.

But in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, three stem-cell experts — Steven Teitelbaum of Washington University in St. Louis, Shane Smith of the Children’s Neurobiological Solutions Foundation in Santa Barbara, California and William Neaves of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City — wrote a detailed rebuttal of these claims and said at best Prentice accurately portrayed only nine of the studies.

What does it say when people lie to defend an opinion on morality?

Right now preclinical work with embryonic stem cells is moving slowly through animal testing, and there are some obstacles to overcome before human trials begin. It is true that one human trial on Parkinson’s Disease patients was stopped in 2001 when 15 percent of the patients developed side effects that were worse than the Parkinson’s. This illustrates the need for caution. However, preclinical research on embryonic stem cells and Parkinson’s disease continues and is showing some promise.

Some argue that because research on embryonic stem cells has yet to result in treatment for human disease, the research is worthless. They ignore the fact that embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. Research on embryonic stem cells is still at an early stage. Studies on adult stem cells, on the other hand, began in the 1960s.

Most medical breakthroughs take a long time to develop. Researchers began trying to develop a polio vaccine in the early 1900s. Jonas Salk began his research in 1947. Human clinical trials began in 1954. The safer Sabine vaccine became available in 1963. It took this much time just to develop a safe and effective vaccine, which is something that had been done successfully before. Developing any new therapy takes time and is terribly expensive — “discovering, testing, and manufacturing one new drug can take between 10 and 15 years and cost nearly a billion dollars.” Stem cell therapy is a far more complex project than developing a new drug.

The naysayers are, essentially, arguing that because the research hasn’t yet developed therapies for human use it never will, even though the enormous majority of scientists believe otherwise.

Here’s one interesting story, however

The story of Molly Nash illustrates how stem cell tools and therapies can work together to save lives. The Colorado child was born with Fanconi’s anemia, a genetic blood disease with an especially poor prognosis. Most patients rarely reach adulthood and die of leukemia. A bone marrow transplant from a healthy sibling with a matched HLA or immune profile can cure the disease, but Molly was an only child and her parents — both carriers of the deadly gene — were fearful of having another child with the disease. They used in vitro fertilization, pre-implantation diagnosis and a cord blood transplant in an attempt to save their child. PGD was used to screen 24 embryos made in the laboratory. One embryo was disease-free and matched Molly’s immune profile. The blastocyst was implanted and nine months later her sibling, named Adam, was born. The stem cells from Adam’s umbilical cord were given to Molly and today she is eleven years old and free from disease.

You can argue about the ethics of having a baby to obtain an umbilical cord to save a child if you like, but this case illustrates that the potential for stem cell therapies are very real.

There is a lot of confusion over stem cell cloning. When stem cell researchers talk about cloning, they mean therapeutic cloning, not reproductive cloning. In therapeutic cloning the cloned cells do not develop into an embryo but instead are used only to develop stem cells.

One other point — a South Korean scientist recently admitted to faking research on stem cell cloning. After this became news, a few on the Right came to believe that all research on embryonic stem cells throughout space and time was, therefore, faked. This is nonsense.

Of course, if the stem cells in question didn’t involve destroying blastocysts, there’d be no controvery. Which takes us back to the leftover blastocyst question.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that most embryos could be implanted in a uterus someday, which is absurd when you consider the cost and time and the fact that the number of blastocysts in storage is growing rapidly. Liza Mundy writes in the current issue of Mother Jones:

In 2002, the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology—the research arm for U.S. fertility doctors—decided to find out how many unused embryos had accumulated in the nation’s 430 fertility clinics. The rand consulting group, hired to do a head count, concluded that 400,000 frozen embryos existed—a staggering number, twice as large as previous estimates. Given that hundreds of thousands of ivf treatment rounds have since been performed, it seems fair to estimate that by now the number of embryos in limbo in the United States alone is closer to half a million.

This embryo glut is forcing many people to reconsider whatever they thought they thought about issues such as life and death and choice and reproductive freedom. It’s a dilemma that has been quietly building: The first American ivf baby was born in 1981, less than a decade after Roe v. Wade was decided. Thanks in part to Roe, fertility medicine in this country developed in an atmosphere of considerable reproductive freedom (read: very little government oversight), meaning, among other things, that responsibility for embryo disposition rests squarely with patients. The number of ivf rounds, or “cycles,” has grown to the point that in 2003 about 123,000 cycles were performed, to help some of the estimated 1 in 7 American couples who have difficulty conceiving naturally. Early on, it proved relatively easy to freeze a lab-created human embryo—which unlike, say, hamburger meat, can be frozen, and thawed, and refrozen, and thawed, and then used. (To be precise, the technical term is “pre-embryo,” or “conceptus”; a fertilized egg is not considered an embryo until about two weeks of development, and ivf embryos are frozen well before this point.) Over time—as fertility drugs have gotten more powerful and lab procedures more efficient—it has become possible to coax more and more embryos into being during the average cycle. Moreover, as doctors transfer fewer embryos back into patients, in an effort to reduce multiple births, more of the embryos made are subsequently frozen.

And so, far from going away, the accumulation of human embryos is likely to grow, and grow, and grow.

The cold truth is that blastocysts generated in IVF clinics and not implanted into a uterus are often discarded immediately. Most of the blastocysts that are frozen will either degrade or be discarded eventually. A small number of available blastocysts have been implanted into adopting mothers, creating the “snowflake babies” — 110 have been born so far. A large portion of the blastocysts that are thawed and implanted will fail to result in a baby, however.

It should be obvious to anyone thinking clearly that “embryo adoptions” are not going to be the solution to the growing glut of frozen blastocysts. And if destroying a blastocyst is immoral, why is it more immoral to use it for potentially life-saving medical research than it is to send it straight to an incinerator? This makes no sense to me.

Now I can finally write about what I wanted to write about to begin with, which is looking at the “moral” issue of embryonic stem cells from many perspectives. I’m going to argue tomorrow that there is nothing at all immoral about embryonic stem cell research, but it is deeply immoral to deny medical researchers the use of surplus blastocysts.

Also: Alternet, “Stem Cell Research Could Make Miracles Happen“; Bob Geiger, “Right wing should adopt 400,000 frozen embryos.”

People With One Watch, Part I

One of my favorite sayings is “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure.”

The point — other than no two wristwatches in your possession ever tell exactly the same time — is that the more knowledge you have of an issue, the more likely you are to see more than one side of it. But over the years I’ve run into an astonishing (to me, anyway) number of people who interpret the saying to mean that it’s better to have just one watch.

When people have limited perspectives because of limited knowledge, you might assume that giving people more knowledge would give them broader perspectives. But then there’s the phenomenon of elective ignorance. People practicing elective ignorance start with a point of view and then admit into evidence only those facts that support their point of view. Those with a really bad case of elective ignorance become incapable of acknowledging facts that contradict their opinions. You can present data to them all day long, and it won’t make a dent; “bad” facts are shoved off the edge of consciousness before they get a chance to complicate the E.I. sufferer’s worldview.

Please note that elective ignorance is not necessarily connected to an individual’s intelligence potential. A person can possess sufficient cerebral material to store and comprehend considerable knowledge but elect not to use it. High-I.Q. people with E.I. Syndrome will sometimes concoct elaborate and fantastical rationalizations to explain why some facts are “bad” and others are “good.” These rationalizations will make sense only to those who have elected the same worldview, of course, which leads us to the Dittohead Corollary — People whose opinions are shaped by E.I. pathologies cannot grasp why other people don’t understand issues as “clearly” as they do. Therefore, they assume something sinister stands between those other people and the elected reality; e.g., “liberals hate America.”

Ideologies can be understood as a form of codified elective ignorance, or a strategy to make the world easier to understand by limiting one’s cognitive choices. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Since we all have finite cognitive resources, adopting an ideology is one way to obtain a workable understanding of issues without devoting the time and brain work required to become an expert. As long as a person appreciates that his understand and knowledge are incomplete, and he remains capable of changing his view as he learns more, this doesn’t qualify as Elective Ignorance Syndrome. Further, it can be useful for people within a society to adopt similar worldviews. That way they can reach consensus on social issues without perpetually re-inventing the perspective wheel, so to speak.

We’re all conditioned from birth to understand ourselves and the world we live in a certain way. By the time we’re adults, we all live in a conceptual box — a complex of paradigms — made up of who we think we are and how we think our lives and the world are supposed to be. The way we understand most things may seem “self-evident” but is nearly always a matter of conditioning. Social psychologists say that what most of us call “reality” is a social construct, meaning that people who grow up in the same culture tend to live in very similar conceptual boxes. Put another way, living in the same culture predisposes people to develop similar paradigms.

People who grow up in different cultures live in different conceptual boxes, however, which is why “foreign” people and cultures often don’t make sense to us, and why we don’t make sense to them. “Open minded” people are those who have at least a vague notion that diverse social constructs of reality are possible and are not necessarily bad. “Closed minded” people, on the other hand, cannot fathom that any other social construct of reality than the one they possess is possible. These people find foreign cultures sinister and frightening; see the Dittohead Corollary, above.

People with extreme E.I Syndrome feel threatened by anything “different,” however, even when that “different” is the next-door neighbor with opposing political views. It’s vital to understand that E.I. people perceive threats to their worldview as threats to themselves, because their self-identities are integrated into their worldview. In other words, the conceptual box they live in is who they are. Any challenge to the integrity of the box must be fought by any means necessary.

That’s why you can’t win a pissing contest with a wingnut, for example. Oh, you can absolutely crush their every argument with facts and logic, but that won’t matter; they won’t back down. If you continue to try to “win” they’ll fall back on all manner of logical fallacies, rote talking points, circular reasoning, and sheer nastiness, until you finally decide the argument is eating too much of your time and energy and walk away. Then they declare victory — not because they’ve proven themselves to be correct, but because they’ve turned away a challenge to the box. Put another way, while you’re presenting data and explaining concepts, they’re guarding their cave. That’s why I don’t even bother to argue with wingnuts any more. It’s as futile as explaining rocket science to hyenas, and possibly as dangerous.

I should add that E.I. Syndrome can be found on the extreme leftie fringe as well — International A.N.S.W.E.R. comes to mind. And E.I. Syndrome explains why extremist political ideologies, either Left or Right, lead to totalitarianism. But at the moment the leftie fringe in America is so marginalized and powerless it’s easy to ignore. The Right, on the other hand, has to be dealt with, like it or not.

I bring this up because, IMO, most of our political conflicts — both international and intra-national — are being stirred up by people with one watch. From here I could launch into a discussion of just about anything in the news — the Middle East is an obvious choice — but what got me going today was the stem cell research ban. President Bush’s “boys and girls” comment from yesterday was an expression of paradigm. And (I’m sure you realize) Fetus People are flaming One Watch types. I want to elaborate on this, but as I’ve gone on for a while already I’ll bump the elaboration to another post.