|on the purpose of science (meditations on being with family, part 2)
||[Dec. 5th, 2004|01:17 am]
On friday, my father had the pleasure of having the preliminary bone scan and bone marrow tap to confirm his readiness for an autolygous stem cell transplant. All went well, and he is in excellent condition to go through the procedure. He will likely be given Neupogen to increse stem cell production starting around the beginning of the year, with daily harvesting for a period of 2-5 days until he has about 1000 cells collected on ice, and then be given radiation threapy to destroy his existing bone marrow in mid january followed by readministration of his own stem cells. Your medicare tax dollars will likely pay for most of it, so for everyone who holds a paying job in the US, I'm going to thank you in advance.
We overnighted it in Tampa on thursday and friday since it was an early start, and he was in no condition to travel after having had needles in the bones in his hip. Monday, however, we drove down for just the day, to get the preliminary bloodwork out of the way. While he was there, we met one of his square-dancing buddies, who as it turns out told us he had just gone through a "bone-marrow transplant" for the same disease. Mom said, "a bone-marrow transplant?" and he replied, "well, no, you know, a stem cell transplant". He had the same operation, but as these things go, his operation had not been successful, as the myeloma cells are still detected. There is only a small fractional chance this process will be "successful"- that is, a cure. He looked great, though- myeloma is a disease which takes a very long time to kill you, and there are "therapies" to put it into remission. Dad has finished one such therapy, the steroid Decadron along with some form of bisphosphonate, and his protein counts as of the end of the therapy are down to levels he has hovered around for the last ten years.
We were driving back to home that monday, and I could tell something was bothering him. He started out with his "you know, people are ignorant" rant.
Mom replied, "Maybe it's better that we just tell people it's a bone marrow transplant".
I confronted Dad. "Did someone hassle you about the stem cells?"
When people ask what he's doing, he's been telling them that he's having a stem cell transplant. Apparently, with some people we know, the reaction is not infrequently blank stares. Sometimes, though, the reactions people give would just horrify you. My brother, apparently, told him that he would be willing to help out and everything but that if he went ahead with a procedure like that, he couldn't help him through it because it wasn't "morally acceptable".
You see, the fundamentalist right has gotten themselves so worked up over the issue of stem cell research derived from stem cells from fetal tissue, the words have ceased to "mean" anything and although stem cells are ubiquitous in living organisms the words have somehow become "crypto-speak" for abortion. And, "abortion is always immoral", by their standards.
Dad justifiably ranted, since he got a similar reaction from the man who served as his best man at his wedding, a die-hard right-to-life catholic. "People are idiots. They're *my* stem cells," dad fumed. You see, there are two types of operations that are performed. In an autolygous transplant, you get your own back. In an immunogenic transplant, you get the ones from a carefully matched donor- typically a relative. Survival and recovery is generally better with autolygous, if you can respond ok to the Neupogen. No fetuses are involved. But, in a stridently republican state such as Florida, and among the fundamentalists, you have no right to call an operation what it is because to do so evokes somehow the spectre of Satan. My brother is not uneducated- he has a degree in mathematics, and serves in the military as an officer. And yet, despite having (at least superficially) the same good eduction that I have had, the same mother who was/is a science teacher, and having lived on this planet for thirty years, has somehow swallowed a load of BS in which words are becoming codes for various absolute right or wrong moral memes.
The problem with any moral system is the same as any logical system: it's thae fact that if you try to think things out, no matter how well you think you've got it nailed there's Gödel's smiling face ready to show off your deficiencies. At some point, we choose our priorities: meat vs milk, cotton vs wool, honor thy parents, sufferring witches, and the like. Eventually if you live long enough you are forced to make solomonic decisions, where you have to choose between two goods or two evils, or worse, between a hidden set of realities in which what is known will always be too sparse to answer correctly.
It was shocking to see my devoutly Catholic parents speak so fervently about the so-called "pro-choice" position- that abortion was about honoring the existing life of the mother more than that of a unknown potential life growing inside her. I had never heard my parents voice an opinion like this, ever. They raised me Catholic and sent me to Catholic school, and even when the Brothers shipped us off to Washington to get extra credit for religion class to march for "life", they signed the permission slips and never once tried to "instill" a value one way or the other. Our moral instruction was to be obedient and well behaved, and to follow the rules and the law, and beyond that we were permitted to vote and believe exactly as we chose, with more or less no bias or prejudice either way. In fact, this entire visit has forced me to reconsider everything i've learned from my parents: in many ways, most of their "rules" were, surprise-surprise, autolygous, not immunogenic. They have tried to provide a moral framework, not the set of rules I always thought they gave. It's not about commandments: it's about enabling the child to be open and receptive to the ideas of commandments, and providing those children with decent sources to fill those pipelines from everday experience and the world around them.
Otherwise, rules are senseless: why does santa claus bring me presents today, and mom and dad bring them tomorrow? why can I stay up till nine today, and ten tomorrow? Rules are arbitrary constructs which provide the framework or morality, not the morality itself. We must either be moral beings underneath it all, whether in obeyance or contradition of specific rules, if morality is ever to be something that makes sense, or we are doomed to be forever infantilized, where rules are always paternalistic or maternalistic capriciousness we cannot wait to outgrow and move out from underneath.
My father continued ranting and raving, about the media and the Bush administration, and rightfully and righteously. We had a great conversation, but it's as clear as day to someone who considers himself as uneducated as he, having neither a college education nor any interest in reading or learning: too much of what we hear is BS.
Whose fault is this? Commonly, the blame is put on right wing fundamentalist religious leaders and their agents, such as the Bushes of th world. But, at it's root, I don't see them as the problem so much as the egregious symptom: we hae lost our sense of purpose to science. Science has become a sort of complex belief system- as though there is only a string of stories told by very smart people which gives creedence to evolution or gravity or quantum mechanics, and just as easily as a stroke of a pen thes truths become lies and there mus be a deeper hand, that of a Creator being or beings, which look down upon our simplistic perspective. This is the fault of Science and Scientists itself, as much as History and Historians, Economics and Economists, and all intellectual pursuit. We don't paint learning as a process: rather, knowledge and learning is something tangible, such that if you had a really good library you'd somehow possess it. This is a lie: learning and knowledge does not exist on paper at all- it exists as a dynamic entity inside the people who make use of the toolset education provides. No tools, and all the truth in the world is useless. As scentists, we abdicate our true role in refining the toolset of education and allow religious ideology to be the only source of what is "right or wrong". Whether it be humanism, or evangelicalism, we leave to philosophy, and worse, superstition, the defining of how we go about deciding what is true or false, moral or immoral, right or wrong.
That there should be any argument over the validity of evolution is the most obvious vanguard of this failure. It is a well known fact that no theory is ever proven- it is only consistent with what we can observe. To defeat evolution, fundamentalist christianity evokes a simple rhetorical tool- forcing the opposition to accept a true statement which plays into their hands. "warning, evolution is only a theory". All good things should be so honored to be elevated to such a level. "warning: that smoking causes lung cancer is only a theory". "warning: gravity is only a theory. Hold on." As scientist, we fail to do what is most important- make the obvious products of a theory, the *benefits*, as self evident as that of being able to stand upright on terra firma. We have permitted a condition to exist that Galileo has oly been pardoned of heresy in the last century: heck, in the last few decades, or so. A theory of God, if one could ever exist, would wipe Athiesm off the map forever, and yet, we have no moral sense of where a "theory" stands relative to honoring one's parents or obeying speed limits.
Most people have never sat down and *read* Descent of Man. And yet, having never read it, you either accept or reject that evolution must be happening, but probably also believe that it is over such long timescales that the underlying truth of the theory is unknowable. This is a lie: the Descent of Man is a compelling chronicle of the observations needed for a Victorian of little technological know-how to become a strident believer. Today, we are not Victorians; we have the advantage of technology: an abilty to trace the genome using DNA. We fight crime with it, we determine parentage with it, and we romanticize it into movies and slang and our culture. No one will likely deny the existence of such a thing as DNA, any more than Gravity. If you prod a fundamentalist as to the basis of there existing an "Eve", the mother of all humanity, they will often quote you the science which traces mitochondrial DNA back to a single African woman as quickly as they will evoke Bereshit. And yet, you cannot accept this evidence without first accepting the underlying truth, the "Theory" of Evolution, because it is not that there is an exact strand of mitochondrial DNA that says, "this is Mom". It is that we evolve, our DNA mutates and changes form and adapts in knowable and observable ways over time as our climate and situation change, in experimentally verifiable ways, and the races and people melt into a common ancestry under such a theory. It is, at it's root, what Evolution is all about. To accept Mitochondrial Eve, you accept Charles Darwin- and yet somehow we permit these memes to be separate, for the words to become divorced from where they originate: we allow a great injustice to happen.
An injustice that hurts each and every one of us, in sometimes ways which we never anticipate. Like, to make a elderly man upset over having to undergo a painful surgery to hope to recover a few years of his life. A surgery which hurts no one but himself, is borne and suffered only by himself, and were it not for the capricious decision of a faceless Medicare administrator, he would have to pay for entirely by himself (despte having paid into the system for years and never having collected any benefit from it- living as much as humanly possible a "healthy" lifestyle). A decision which might be easily reversed, without ever knowing the human cost, because we use words for which we have never bothered to learn the true meaning.
Sure, there's always something more to learn, and one day, we may be fortunate to come up with an even better Theory, which makes sense of things which we today have no hope of understanding. We are like an infant looking at a graduate text in mathematics. We learn to learn. We grow up. And, we evolve. And, we admit when we are Wrong, and have Wronged. That is morality.