Get Your Story Straight

A delicious moment of reality.

Consultant, reporter, author and former NASA employee Jame Oberg nails British TV news on their snide claim that astronauts flew aboard the Shuttle drunk. They didn't.

The issue involved a Suyuz launch and a T-38 flight, not the Shuttle, as reported. But worse, Jim points out, the press missed the bigger story - astronauts apparently are not subject to the same medical screening as civil servants at NASA nor, for that matter, private pilots.


Twins are okay, why not clones?

Bioethicist Hugh McLachlan argues the reason we're so against the idea of cloning humans--cloning is a criminal offense in many countries--has to do only with irrational fears of risks we readily accept in other areas of reproduction.

One argument is that it is morally wrong to replicate people. But environmental factors will ensure the resulting individual is not an identical copy, either psychologically or physically. Besides, McLachlan points out, we accept genetically identical people in the form of twins. If anything, clones would be less alike than twins because they would be different ages and be brought up in different contexts.

Another concern is safety, but in other areas of reproduction (and life in general) safety alone isn't sufficient grounds to make something illegal. There may be an increased risk of miscarriage or deformity, but for people born as a result of cloning, it is their only chance of life. Cloning is therefore not a risk but an opportunity. If you could only have been born as a clone, with the risks that entails, would you have wanted your life to have been prevented?

Other arguments McLachlan attacks are more outlandish, red herrings such as the idea that it might alter the gene pool, or that despotic leaders might use cloning to create armies of ideal soldiers. Only a tiny percentage of people will consider cloning because, after all, sexual reproduction is cheaper, safer and more fun. Only those with no other option are likely to resort to cloning.

Even if growing numbers of clones could affect the gene pool, is that a reason for making the practice illegal? It's not as though there is any "natural" or preordained path along which our species is meant to develop. Global travel has probably had a far greater effect on the gene pool than cloning ever could, and nobody uses that to argue for a ban on it.

As for state-run cloning factories, any organized program to rear babies for a particular purpose would clearly be abhorrent, whether the children were produced by sexual intercourse, IVF or cloning. This has no bearing on whether individual couples should be allowed to choose cloning as a method by which to have a child. Similarly, if someone was cloned without their consent, that would be unethical and should be illegal, but it is not a reasonable objection to cloning any more than rape is an objection to sex.

McLachlan concludes, "In a free society, actions should be legal unless there is a case for making them illegal. We do not need to justify cloning in order to say that it should be legal (although it would clearly benefit those infertile couples for whom there is no other way to have a child that is genetically related to them). It should be for those who want cloning to remain a crime to justify themselves."


Hugh McLachlan is professor of bioethics at Glasgow Caledonian University, UK. He is author, with J. Kim Swales, of From the Womb to the Tomb: Issues in medical ethics (Humming Earth, Glasgow, 2007)

An Unconcious Violinist

Here's a thought provoking analogy written by Judith Jarvis Thomson from Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971).

"You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you,

"Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you."

Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says,

"Tough luck. I agree. But now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him."


Tibimet Cogitate (Think For Yourself)

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe ... till we come to a hard bottom ... which we call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake ... below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or state, or set a lamp-post safely .
Thoreau, in Walden:

I understand that 50% of the people in the world are dumber than the other half, by definition. But I'm suspicious it's actually more than that.

Still, there's nothing wrong with being dumb or naive or uneducated. If you're honest.

If you're honest, you start with, "I don't know." And you can stop there. It's okay not to know. And you don't have to make stuff up if you don't. We used to do that to explain things like thunder and death, and it didn't work too well. Lightning still killed people even though we prayed to Thor to stop.

Then, as now, you could say, "I want to find out why." And some people did.

If, after trying hard, thinking for yourself and not taking other people's word for it, you still don't know, then--if you're honest--you'll admit, "I still don't know." And you can stop there. It really is okay.

But if you're curious and have the stamina, you' ll say, "I'm gonna keep trying until I find out. Maybe I will, and maybe I won't. But I'll try." And some people do.

If you aren't curious, or don't have the stamina--and you're honest--you'll say, "I don't know and I just can't find out;  but I'm okay with that." But not too many people do that. An awful lot of people just make things up.

But, fortunately, lots of curious people have spent lots of energy to find answers to a lots of things for lots of years. They've even looked for answers to how best to look for answers, and how to know if you have the right one.

The method people adopted and refined works so well that we've been able to figure out why things fall when you drop them, and why clouds make loud sparks, and why north is that way, and why grass is green and grows, and why we get sick. We've even figured out why distant galaxies are where they are, why your skin is the color that it is, and how you can split atoms to make electricity. We don't have all the answers, but that's okay. We're working on it.

This method of finding things out, and all we've learned using that method, all we've done with the knowledge we've gained, is the best method we've found. It's not based on authority or dogma, it's based on the fact that some people always think the answers we have are not the complete answer. And that's a good thing, unless your just gripe and don't try to find a better answer. Fortunately, honest people try to come up with better answers, and they test their ideas and explain them to as many knowledgeable people as possible and argue and refine and retest and adopt and reject. Other, fundamentally dishonest people, just claim they have a better answer, argue with everyone else's answer, but won't make the effort to provide an alternative.

There really are people that claim the world is flat, we're the center of the universe, men didn't land on the moon, the US government arranged 9/11, the Nazis really didn't kill all that many Jews, and Allah not Jesus is God (or vice versus).

If you think you have a better answer, you should try to prove it. In fact, if you think you have a better method for arriving at the truth about the way things work then, by all means, you should try to prove that!

But if you're not smart enough to understand the answers other people have come up with using the best method available, or if you're smart enough but too lazy to learn the answer, then the best answer is just be honest and say, "I don't know." And shut up.

The theory of evolution, for example, isn't something you believe or not. It's something you understand or not. The same is true for the theory of relativity and the theory of electromagnetism. The same method was used to find the answer to all three--and lots of other facts about the way things work. You can't disagree with one without disagreeing with all of them. Unless you're dishonest, of course.

Maybe Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said it best in his 1974 Caltech commencement address:

It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. . . .

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another. . . .

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.


For more along these lines, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has written 'In defense of dangerous ideas'. And so has lawyer Timothy Sandefur.

Inside Information

Ever wonder how things work inside. Well, okay, I suppose you need to go get an advanced degree in physiology or medicine if you really want to understand how they work.

But if you've ever just wondered what things really look like in there, take a look at this CT scan image.


If you have to get a CT scan or MRI yourself, ask for a copy of the scans on CD. They should be willing to provide it without cost (or hastle). Now pop the CD into your Mac running OS 10.4 and go get a free open source copy of OSIRIX. Instead of a little image like the one here, you'll see it full screen, with all kinds of cool tools to change the density, color, angles, etc.

Ta-dah, all you'd ever want to see of your own insides--and then some.

They'll Eat You Alive

Female mosquitoes, the only kind that will infect you, have to at eat least every 3 days. When they do, they ingest the human equivalent of a bathtub full of blood (2.5x body weight). In the process they accidentally inject parasites along with anti-coagulant spit. All manner of animals, not just humans, get malaria from rats and bats to chimps and humans. In other words, malaria parasites aren't very particular where they live, so you'll find them almost everywhere.

A typical mosquito carries 100,000 malaria parasites in its glands. 50,000 of the parasites could live in a space the size of the period at the end of this sentence, but it only takes one to kill you.

Researchers suspect that the deaths of half the people that have ever lived were caused by malaria. Washington, Jefferson, and Ulysses S Grant suffered from it. 1,000,000 soldiers died from it during the Civil War from it. During WW2, more Americans died in the Pacific from it than from combat. Even now, 3000 kids die every day in Africa from malaria.

DDT could have eradicated it worldwide, but environmentalist Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), because of here concern for falcons, sea lions, and salmon, singlehandedly managed to get it banned. DDT is harmless to humans, but according the NIH the DDT ban may have killed 20,000,000 children. How's that for a legacy?