10/25/2008

PALIN VS. FRUIT FLY RESEARCH

Let me be blunt: No one who cares about science education can vote for Sarah Palin.

It's bad enough that she's almost certainly a Young Earth Creationist, given reports such as these and the fact that she was until recently a member of an Assembly of God congregation.

But check out this policy speech, brought to my attention by PZ Myers, whose commentary I also commend to you:




Look: she's deliberately saying fruit fly research, from Paris, France. See, she thinks this is a delicious triple whammy, since the France reference encourages a knee-jerk xenophobic reaction along the lines of 'un-American', while the use of the word 'fruit' is a code word for 'gay agenda.' And, of course, why would anyone bother spending tax dollars on something as insignificant as flies?



Palin, of course, is not a biologist but even a reasonably educated layperson with a college degree should probably have had enough science that they know that fruit flies are the most important model organism in the history of biology, associated with several Nobel Prizes for fundamental breakthroughs in genetics, some of which have led to significant advances in medicine....in fact, as this blog mentions, potential advances in the treatment of autism. But don't take a political blog's word for it: here's a news brief, unpoliticized, on such lines of research from May of this year. Fruit fly research is important, has been important for decades in biology, and well-educated people should know that kind of thing before making major policy speeches that affect public support for scientific research.

Well, Palin is more willful than well-educated. Consider her decision to carry a pregnancy to term this year at the age of 44, despite being aware that the child would be born with Down's Syndrome. She and her husband show conviction of sorts in choosing to support this child, and I actually admire that choice. But what about the decision to even pursue a pregnancy at this stage? Geneticists have determined that, at age 35, that the odds of a fetus with Down's Syndrome is a high risk....and the odds for a 44-year-old mother is more than eight times greater than that! Presumably, as a governor, the Palin family got those statistics, yet they decided to role the dice, anyway. Perhaps, after the backlash from this gaffe is brought to her attention, she'll start actually vetting decisions based on science with real scientists...maybe even, from time to time, personal decisions?

14 comments:

Kimmers said...

Scott, Scott, Scott. You keep forgetting that this woman does not read anything that is remotely scientific or intellectually stimulating. She couldn’t even name a newspaper or magazine when Katie Curic asked her what she read. Why on God’s green earth would you think that she would know about fruit flies? She will do anything that will portray her as a “Good American” to the Christian Right. I’m afear’d that she may be thinking of running in 2012 - GOD HELP US ALL!

Ian H Spedding said...

I'm sorry, Scott, but unless you share the Moose-killer's views you're not pro-American. This means, according to Michelle Bachmann, you should be investigated for un-American activities. (Hmmm, where have I heard that before?) And unless Clovis has been designated as part of Real America then you're almost as bad as the French. This means you might know something about that furrin' stuff but obviously nothin' about good ol' American science which is why America leads the world in racing "snow machines" and shooting animals from helicopters. Welcome to Palinocracy

Shelly D. said...

Okay, I had to jump in on this one. I try to stay out of the political debates. First off, although I'm a political conservative, I'm not fully behind my party's candidates. That being said, can we *really* logically extrapolate that she was using the word "fruit" as code for an anti-gay agenda? I think that is grossly unfair. I don't think of code for gay when I hear the word fruit and think that someone who gets that out of it has issues! That took a huge leap to get from point A to B. Not all conservatives are anti-gay homophobes. I'll stop right there before I jump into the mire. Love ya to death Scott, nothing personal!

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

No offense taken. I admit that I'm making a bit of a leap, and I agree that not all conservatives are homophobes (Andrew Sullivan comes to mind). But the thing is, Palin has pretty much revealed her hand to me by two things:

1) The way she emphasized the word 'fruit' in the soundbite...listen to it!

2) The fact that she went on the record in a Christian television network interview as favoring a FEDERAL amendment to outlaw gay marriage

Think about it. Conservatives are always talking about the rights of the states in the context of matters like abortion, segregation, et cetera. But Palin can't wait to go 'Federalist' in order to enshrine a viewpoint into the Constitution, and to go public with her advocacy even though it specifically contradicts the views of her running mate. I have no idea about what Palin really thinks about gay people, but isn't it obvious that she thinks her natural constituency is anti-gay? From that point of view, my inference about the modifier 'fruit' isn't that far out...!

BTW, for what it's worth, I do NOT think McCain is a homophobe, nor do I necessarily view conservatives as my ideological foes. I do, however, make it my business to vote against people who actively misrepresent real science, liberal or conservative.

Wandering Internet Commentator said...

But what about the decision to even pursue a pregnancy at this stage? Geneticists have determined that, at age 35, that the odds of a fetus with Down's Syndrome is a high risk....and the odds for a 44-year-old mother is more than eight times greater than that! Presumably, as a governor, the Palin family got those statistics, yet they decided to roll the dice, anyway. Perhaps, after the backlash from this gaffe is brought to her attention, she'll start actually vetting decisions based on science with real scientists...maybe even, from time to time, personal decisions?


Er...to be perfectly fair, Mr. (forgive me if it should be Dr., this is my first time commenting, I think) Hatfield, and I do apologize for my intrusiveness and rudeness for just wandering in here to leave a comment, I'm not sure the fact Ms. Palin decided to have a child at this point in time is necessarily indicative of any 'antipathy' towards science. Reckless, maybe, but many people (not all of them religious) just like having big families, even if that means bearing children at later times in their lives. Like I said in agreement with you, it may be a reckless roll of the dice, but one based on a love for children and a desire for a large family, not on antipathy to (or even blithe ignorance of) science and hard evidence.

WENDEE HOLTCAMP said...

You're right on with most of this Scott (agreed wholeheartedly on the vote for Palin being a vote against science, and science ed) but the only thing that some may take exception to - including myself - is the implication that people with Down's syndrome are somehow "less desirable" or "less than" or unwanted. I'm sure you didn't mean that, and though I don't personally have any Downs syndrome children I know that many of them live healthy and happy lives, and the severity of the symptoms varies. I see adults with Downs syndrome swimming at my gyms pool in a special class, and I see them working on the grocery store, and I don't think that Palin's decision to have a baby after age 35 really has anything to do with her qualifications or her character. In fact though I think she is utterly unqualified to be VP let alone President, and I oppose her stances on *nearly* everything the choice to have a baby after 35 is neutral and the choice to keep a Down's syndrome baby if anything is an admirable trait. I am sure you didn't mean that but I wanted to point it out!

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Wendee and others, thanks for your comments. I probably should make sure my views on this point are clarified, before I am mistakenly identified with eugenics.

First of all, I've known many families affected by Down's Syndrome and I know that many DS kids can have happy, rewarding lives filled with meaning for themselves and others. I would not suggest otherwise. Indeed, in my original post I did not fault the Palins for choosing to carry a pregnancy to term. As I said, they are living their convictions and I actually admire them for that. Nor would I want to live in a country where parents couldn't choose conception later in life. I'm no fan of 'taking liberties'.


But having a kid at age 44 was a risk, one that the Palins were probably willing to take because their personal beliefs trumped the increased likelihood of birth defects. That may not be an anti-science position, but it is a case of faith overpowering reason...and that is part of a troubling pattern for believers such as the Palins.

Also, note that this discussion implicitly privileges the view that women, including Gov. Palin, are presumed to have 'reproductive rights' and can choose to pursue pregnancy late in life, without regard to the personal or social cost. Where do these 'rights' come from, if not from the body of law associated with Roe v. Wade?

Stan said...

Whoa there Scott...
Palin did not attack Drosophila research; the Paris research was on Bactrocera. (http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/)
Getting your news from PZ is hazardous... as is your completely unwarranted interpretation of every word with your own dark bent.

And as for your denial of a eugenic theme, I think your use of bold and exclamation points tends to belie that claim. You clearly do not approve of her decision and are using it to denounce her.

Her decision is no different than the leftist claim of constitutional privacy for the reproductive decision of abortion: it is her reproductive decision, no one else's. While I dispute that Roe v Wade is the source of any human rights, the defense of Roe is applicable to the defense of reproductive decisions of all types, including Palin's: it's private; it's not to be demeaned.

As with all things election this year, the full vetting is not forthcoming from the Left. Only Joe the Plumber and Palin's personal life has been checked out with painstaking shredding.

Your complaint about Palin's education is ironic in light of the tendency that biologists have of interpreting all science as being biology, and all truth as being science. Vetting things with "real" scientists is not a path to truth. As we have discussed before, all science "knowledge" is contingent and science produces contingent factoids, not truth.

BTW, I have taught, briefly, Down's children; I would rather be with them than the attitude rife "normal" kids that run rampant in the school system. Down's children are caring, loving, concerned yet happy persons. They already know, innately, things that many of the other kids won't ever learn: that kindness, generosity, caring are more important than anything else. I personally resent the denigration of Down's persons, which is a big part of the Left's attack on Palin.

While you claim the right to decide is "implicit" in the post, I don't find that to be the case, nor is it the case in most Leftist commentary. If it were the case, they would not be continuously talking about it in shocked, indignant terms. They would consider it private per the constitution and leave it alone.

CarlaCarlaCarlaCarla said...

So Scott got kinda rambly...
... even a reasonably educated layperson with a college degree should probably have had enough science that they know that fruit flies are the most important model organism in the history of biology, associated with several Nobel Prizes for fundamental breakthroughs in genetics, some of which...

Okay, that's about enough of that. Have I ever told you that you sometimes remind me of my sister? :)

As for Palin's decision to bear a child at 44...
Since less than half (nope, I didn't go google the percentage) of offspring born to 35+ mothers have Downs Syndrome, perhaps the risk she took wasn't all that unreasonable. And who's gonna go around criticizing people for taking risks?

Boy, it pays to hang in there!
I'd nearly lost interest by the time I got to Stan's comment, but his was my favorite.

And I'm almost finished!
WTG wandering internet commentator for that 65-word sentence. Although you're not quite ready for Faux Faulkner, I encourage you to keep at it. Maybe one day...

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

OK, Stan, on the first point I don't see anything about fruit flies of any genus at the link you provided, so I don't know what in fact the link demonstrates, sorry.

Secondly, (presuming the link has to do with genus Bactrocera)I fail to see what difference the genera makes. Fruit fly genetics as a research program is not confined to Drosophila, and there are good reasons to look at different levels of taxa. The specialization where Drosophila is that in the past it was a lot easier to study that particular genus's gigantic polytene chromosomes with conventional microscopes.

I'm not a eugenicist. I do not believe that our species has the knowledge (or the wisdom) at present to pursue any sort of eugenics program, I strongly reject the views of those who would attempt to revive eugenic arguments in the public square, such as James Watson. And, while I haven't seen a poll on the subject, I'd be willing to bet that the majority of biologists would agree with me.

I am, however, in favor of making genetic counseling more widely available so that potential parents can be better informed, and obviously I think fertilizing oocytes in their fourth decade to be unwise. I wouldn't have done it. Do I feel Gov. Palin doesn't have the right to make that choice? Not at all. As for the concept of 'reproductive rights', I share both your skepticism of the legal foundation for such rights while agreeing with the point that Palin's decision to carry her pregnancy to term is consistent with such rights. I agree with all that...so what? I can't have an opinion about whether her rights were exercised intelligently, or not? I'm not condemning Palin on moral grounds: I'm questioning her judgement. Her beliefs clearly trumped the data in that case.

Stan, I don't know any biologists personally who interpret all science in terms of biology--in fact I would think that is profoundly silly. But, I do know plenty of religious who apparently believe that everyone and everything should be viewed through the filter of their religious beliefs. I know plenty of scientists from all fields who tend to be parochial about their field and view all of science through the lens of their own interests, but that's not quite the same thing, is it? So what? That's just human nature writ large. I really don't even see the point of that observation, frankly.

As for Palin's path to 'truth', I also have to scratch my head. This post of mine was never about what is 'true' or 'not true'. I have no idea whether or not Palin is pursuing the truth, or simply self-interest, or whether she distinguishes between such propositions in her mind, or not. And I don't care, Stan. This is about whether someone is qualified to serve at the highest levels of government. As a scientist, I don't like it when someone bags on real science just to score talking points with the uneducated. Only an uneducated person could nod their head in agreement to that 'fruit fly' riff which clearly implied the program was trivial, or even worthy of ridicule. In my mind, appealing to that demographic at the expense of scientific literacy disqualifies them from consideration. I won't give my vote to such a person. That's the point of my post, pure and simple. Most of the stuff you raise in your reply strikes me as trivial or ancillary to that point. You don't have to share my conviction about the importance of supporting science---reasonable people can disagree---but I also notice you don't appear to be attempting to make any case for Palin's credibility on policy issues related to science.

(looks at watch, waiting for Stan to invoke skepticism about global warming)

Stan said...

Well, Scott,
If you had limited your points to the demonstrated utility of fruit fly research, that would be one thing. But you slammed her for her religious affiliation (AOG); you inferred xenophobia, homosexual hatred, and excessive patriotism. A good third of the post concerns her (private) reproductive decision.

I'll grant you that her fruit fly statement was not too bright. Neither was Biden's comment that FDR got on TV when the market crashed in '29.

My point was and is that you appear to be filtering everything through the lens of biology... period. No comments on Obama's socialist - marxist bent, or Biden's continual brain flushes. So to me, it appears that for you, truth is biology, and biology is Democrat. Do I agree with you that science is the most important subject for the next U.S. President?

Not by a long shot. This will be blunt, sorry: Studying fruit flies will not protect our economy, our borders, our tall buildings, our children from predators, our ethics, our right to read unabridged history, our right to disagree in public, our right to bear arms, our right to bear children however - whenever, etc, etc. Biology is an impotent tool for protecting anything I care about except health. It can't even address health care So no, I will not base my vote on who funnels the most $$ to unbridled science.

I think it would be a fair debate to ask why taxpayers are required to support research and scientists in the first place. But that is a different question.

BTW, the link was to the science tracker at MIT; you have to scroll to find it.

Stan said...

Sorry to go so long... but the research to which Palin referred is in Paris FRANCE; why should we send taxpayer $$$ for that?

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Stan: I'll see if I can find the article you refer to on the MIT science tracker.

As far as single-issue politics go, you misread me. My issue is not whether or not Gov. Palin is a biologist, or whether or not she shares my views on evolution or genetics, but whether her candidacy is good or bad for science education in general.

I believe scientific literacy is absolutely key to our nation's economic future and national security in a number of ways. I do not believe that being a Republican, or a member of an AOG church, or pro-choice etc. disqualifies Palin per se. But, taken as a whole, and as exemplified by this incident, she clearly not only does not understand the science but is willing to throw science 'under the bus' in order to obtain a talking point that appeals to those who are similarly ignorant. Such a person is not in my judgment well-qualified for the office she aspires to. That's the point, Stan. Everything else is just window dressing.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Sorry to go so long... but the research to which Palin referred is in Paris FRANCE; why should we send taxpayer $$$ for that?

Jerry Coyne, who knows quite a bit more about biology than yours truly, explains:

The research Palin attacked was a perfectly valid project designed to protect American growers from the olive fruit fly, a destructive pest.

You can read Coyne's critique of Palin's performance here.