Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No Imminent Cures from Stem Cells

Well, here we have it at last, an admission that all this hoo-haa about human animal hybrids is not leading to imminent cures for degenerative diseases. It is both sad and suspicious that only after the vote had been taken by Parliament did the scientific commentators and proponents of this line of research come out and admit the truth.

Vulnerable people have been exploited to make the case for a line of research which, at the very best, offers only a long-term hope for treatments in a few decades. The cynicism and sheer chutzpah of some proponents of hybrid embryonic stem cell research is astounding.

Once again, one has to ask why the government forced this bit of legislation through with such hype about the potential to cure everything under the sun? Are we seeing once again, as with the dodgy dossier and the case for war in Iraq, a peddling of half truths to win over the public and parliament? And with what motivation?

Hmm... I have no more to say on this matter, time will judge.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Social Care Agenda

So, it seems that Gordon Brown et al are suddenly concerned that our old people (i.e. almost all of us in a few years time) are not being well enough looked after, and that the cost of care is disadvantaging all. Well, I can't argue with that, having worked in nursing and care of the elderly back in the nineties, all I can say is that if things have got worse since that time then we are in a truly sorry State.

The thing that worries me is that throwing money, insurance schemes, and other reviews is not really addressing the issue. The way have chosen to live our lives, atomized, families scattered, children too busy to see isolated parents regularly, neighbours too scared, suspicious or ignorant of one another to watch out for the vulnerable ones, and a general abdication of responsibility to the "powers that be" (i.e. social and health services), means that care has been reduced to a mechanistic process rather than one of genuine compassion and engagement by the wider community.

In fact I would go so far as to say that no government can ever resolve this. While a bill goes through Parliament that allows for IVF with no father being named, and as we increasingly rely on self-definition of "family" and "community" – it is no wonder that our care services are in a sorry state. Because at the end of the day it will be down to us, not Labour, the Tories or anyone else coming along making manifesto promises.

We will all (should we live that long) grow old, become frail and need care. Will we leave it till it's too late to wake up and realize that we need to start looking out for one another and not abdicating that responsibility to the State? I am much heartened by new models of church community that are exploring how to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable. But these examples are still the exception, not the norm, and even if every church in the land rose to the challenge that would still run the risk of the wider community abdicating its responsibility to the churches instead of the State, thus creating a new form of institutionalism.

If how we care for the vulnerable is a mark of how civilised we are then I guess we are living in a barbarian society – the old, the young, the dying and the unborn – none are universally well cared for in modern Britain, and more and more legislation to remove protections and allow the killing of those whose lives are deemed "not worth living" are threatening to appear on our statute books.

The only way that changes is going to happen is with each one of us choosing for it be otherwise – and not to rely on someone else to care for our family, our friends and our neighbours. Instead we should look to do it ourselves, together as a community.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Studying Belief

This is a fascinating article from the Economist, that saves it’s sucker punch for the last paragraph, but raises some interesting problems. And my initial reaction was to laugh (it still is to be honest), but on reflection one has to admit it does raise some serious questions about the assumptions in some branches of the scientific community. I say some, as my own schooling in medical anthropology has taught me, the first thing you have to question is every assumption, and reconstruct your understanding from the most basic level.

So the epistemological problem here is quite an intriguing one – can religious belief be analysed and deconstructed, and the basis for it be found in evolutionary biology? The first question I have to ask is, “why are you asking this question?” – is it a valid question to ask if an area of human behaviour and knowledge that deals in the metaphysical, the ritual and the moral/ethical dimensions can be analysed in terms of reductionist methodologies coming from a totally different epistemological starting point. Or to put it another way, can the questions asked by evolutionary biology answer the questions and the search for spiritual meaning and truth? There would seem to be an assumption by the evolutionary biologists that religion has an evolutionary purpose.

And it is a valid question to ask – after all some sociological and psychological studies have indicated that those with a religious belief, and especially those belonging to a religious community of some sort (from a church to a monastery, mosque, synagogue, temple, ashram, etc, etc.) seem to live longer, and have healthier lives, and often contribute more to society (although almost of all of these findings are open to question and interpretation). However, it begs the question – if religious belief has an evolutionary purpose, does non-belief serve a purpose? Is there an evolutionary purpose to scientific research, atheism, secularism, etc, etc? In other words, physician health thyself – it is the old error of earlier generations of anthropologists that their science was purely about the observation of the other rather than the observation of self – the researcher researches him or herself and questions the values, assumptions and mindsets that underpins his or her own field of study and activity. Medical Anthropology soon turned from studying only the patient to also studying the doctor and the nurse, and then to studying the researcher him or herself.

Because the next problem then arises – if those undertaking this research come from an essentially secular and at least agnostic world view then is there not an anomalous problem that the world view they represent may in itself also be the result of an evolutionary process, or, worse still, an evolutionary dead end (after all, the secular, educated middle classes have far lower birth rates than their religious counterparts, so by Darwinian logic are slowly being bred out of existence). So it seems illogical to ask the one question without also asking the other.

The problem is one of blind spots in epistemology, and the ready assumptions that consequently arise. The early question used in the article, about how people may be programmed to see God observing their every move, misses an understanding of what it is that believers actually believe. It is based on the assumptions of what it is that we believe by those who do not necessarily share our beliefs (and of course, there are many scientists who do have a religious belief – the two domains are far from mutually exclusive).

So the whole enterprise of finding a scientific reason for belief ultimately flawed from several angles. However, that does not mean it will not throw up interesting results – but possibly the most interesting results will be what it tells us about the assumptions and beliefs of the scientists undertaking the research.