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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 23, 2023

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A literal young-earth creationist is now Speaker of the House. I'm surprised that we don't have more people upset about this on a rationalist forum. That he was elected should be a pretty damning indictment of the US Republican party---anyone here voting for them better have a really strong benefit in mind that is worth this crazy of a trade-off.

I'm just going to abstract the speaker's powers as significant influence over which bills get passed in Congress---we can assume that the speaker being one person instead of another pushes these towards that speaker's particular idiosyncratic beliefs. I hope this simplification is acceptable.

So first, what practical impact does it have if the US government is passing laws significantly closer to a young-earth creationist's belief than otherwise? Most directly, it screws up science funding and educational curricula pretty badly. Science funding would be pushed away from geology, astronomy, and certain parts of biology---we'll be less able to understand where oil/ores are, how volcanoes and earthquakes work, frameworks for understanding examples of metabolic pathways in various organisms and all the drug discovery, etc. they can be used for, how ecosystems develop and adapt, whatever future high-energy physics we need astronomical observations instead of particle accelerator data to develop/the technologies that come from this, etc.---I am sure an actual expert in these areas could give a million more examples. For educational curriculum, teaching people wrong beliefs this foundational to understanding the world can horribly warp their ability to think logically and correctly. It's actively lowering the sanity waterline.

Beyond that, young-earth creationism is just the most obvious symptom of a bigger problem Mike Johnson has in how he forms beliefs about the world---massively overweighting evidence from one particular 2000-year-old book. That 2000-year-old book has all kinds of horrific and/or impractical policy prescriptions that could do untold harm if people took them without question. Just in the realm of biology again, stopping funding of stem-cell research the last time fundamentalist Christians had power in the 2000's was devastating in how many medical technologies were delayed---we might have had a cure for diabetes by now. How much other important medical research might some sort of fundamentalist "bible-based" ethics stop? In hopes of being more agreeable to everyone, I'm not even talking about more culture-war things, which as the comments below mention, can feel much more impactful.

Most broadly, it's just scary to have someone in power delusional enough to make a mistake like believing young-earth creationism after being given a modern education. What other insane things might they do? It's worse than if someone who constantly talks about how they were abducted by aliens were elected speaker---that's at least a harder belief to refute than creationism.

Just in the realm of biology again, stopping funding of stem-cell research the last time fundamentalist Christians had power in the 2000's was devastating in how many medical technologies were delayed---we might have had a cure for diabetes by now.

Okay, I'm gonna put my foot down here. What us religious zealot bigots opposed was embryonic stem cell research. Adult stem cells and other means of deriving stem cells, such as from umbilical cords? No problem.

One Ozy Brennan formerly of this parish, noted religious zealot conservative bigot, actually mentioned this in passing in a round-up links post:

A while ago I was wondering whatever happened to embryonic stem cells, a top culture war issue of my teenage years. This article gives an answer. We learned to convert any cell into a stem cell, so embryonic stem cells became less necessary. People are still working on stem-cell research, but stem cell research is very complicated and expensive, so it is slow going.

The article in question, from that nest of Bible-thumpers, MIT:

National Geographic would later summarize the incredible promise: "the dream is to launch a medical revolution in which ailing organs and tissues might be repaired” with living replacements. It was the dawn of a new era. A holy grail. Pick your favorite cliché—they all got airtime.

Yet today, more than two decades later, there are no treatments on the market based on these cells. Not one.

...During the stem-cell meeting, I had a chance to meet old sources—some now literally so, scientists transmuted by a quarter-century and hard work into deans or wizened advisers. I asked: is 25 years and counting a normal time frame, or is something amiss with this vaunted technology? To most of the people I spoke with, the agonizing delay is no surprise. That’s how long it can take for a truly novel biotechnology to develop. The initial human test of a gene therapy occurred in 1980, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the first gene fix was approved for sale in Europe. By that yardstick, stem cells are on track.

This is what makes me so fucking irritated with the entire topic, if you will pardon the swearing. Embryonic stem cell research was never about "a cure for diabetes" or the rest of the feel-good soundbites fed to the media, all those were for the purpose of convincing the public and hence the politicians holding the purse strings for funding that this was what should and must be funded now. Think Christopher Reeve, God rest the man, having the hope of walking again being held out to him and thus becoming a public face of advocacy for it.

What embryonic stem cell research was about was the fascinating topic of deep diving into human development; how the fertilised cells turn into differentiated organs, which go to make up the complex system that is a human being. Sure, there might be insight along the way into "ah, that's how this problem results, when this sequence is screwed-up" about illness and disorders, but it was never going to produce "a cure for X in five to ten years". And the scientists knew that, but also knew about playing the funding game where you promise "if you fund this, then the miracles will happen on schedule".

Us religious bigot zealots popped up to go "so hey, maybe don't create and then destroy human embryos for this research?" which scientists didn't like, because they don't like being told what to do. So the battle was on in the media and public perception, and the distinction between objection to embryonic stem cells and stem cell research in general was elided and then blotted out: the flat story was "the Bible-bashers want to kill all research which means no cures for your disease which we totally promise we can do in five years if you let us".

Then here we are, twenty-five years later, and the story is now "Oh, well, we don't really need embryonic stem cells for the research and actually they're more trouble than they're worth*, and it is going to take this long or longer to get to any cures at all". Just like all the other great projects - remember sequencing the human genome, and how this was going to mean individually tailored to your personal genetics medical treatments? Yeah, biology is complicated, turns out.

But meanwhile people like OP still have the story in their head that "we'd have the cure for diabetes by now if it weren't for those meddling religious types!" in the same way as that infamous graph about "we'd have colonies at Alpha Centauri by now were it not for the Christian Dark Ages".

*If I'm remembering correctly, they had a lot of trouble with embryonic cells encouraged to develop into specific tissues turning cancerous, as it were, and instead creating tumours; they were too totipotent. Adult stem cells were less trouble because they were 'pre-programmed', so to speak, and were much more useful in developing therapies.

EDIT: Coincidentally, from a comment on the new post up over at Astral Codex Ten:

As a PhD student, I used to grow kidney organoids - small clumps of kidney tissue derived from embryonic kidney progenitor cells (or Yamanaka-factors induced stem cells). They were amorphous in shape and couldn't grow past a very small size limit: there were no blood vessels inside, and the center of the organoid would begin to necrotize from lack of oxygen. Growing a full-sized kidney in a lab would require a much better understanding of vascularization during embryogenesis.

A cool workaround I once saw in a Finnish lab was to literally 3D-print a microchannel tree, and populate it with thousands of mini-organoids. I haven't been following the field since, so if anyone is aware how close we are to a 3D-printed kidney, let me know.

So there's someone who was working with embryonic cells, and still it turns out that Biology Hard.