Test-tube life gets a step closer

The Guardian website announced this afternoon that Craig Ventner is about to announce the creation of a chromosome. The article headings are:-

I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer
· Scientist has made synthetic chromosome
· Breakthrough could combat global warming

I have less than zero capacity to judge the legitimacy of this news item. It’s obviously ‘pop science’ journalism. That normally means that I apply my one-tenth-understanding to some science journalist’s half-understanding.

Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before”.

That said, taking the news at face value, this does seem to be a potentially huge ethical issue. It could be really good or really bad, depending on the social and political context that such research is sued in.

I can’t help having a bit of a doom and gloom response. I don’t think our track record as a non-creator species is good enough to justify us getting even greater power over the nature of life. (I’ve read Mary Shelley, ffs.)

The Guardian’s mention of a solution to global warming just reminds me that global climate change is the perfect example of an issue where we humans have created a problem and refuse to solve it. (Maybe we haven’t solved it because we couldn’t create artificial life? Sorry, I can’t follow that argument even in sarcasm)

The people in power won’t even admit to the reality of climate change because it might cut their profits and the voting public might object to anything except untrammelled consumer growth so cut off their access to power if they even tried. These are two very short-term concerns that affect a small number of people but they are what determine the world’s response to global warming.

Is our species about to change? Are our leaders all about to become wise and beneficent masters of the universe? In that case, the power to create test tube life is safe in their hands……

Thinking is sometimes better than counting…

There’s a good article on Pure Pedantry. It illustrates why any amount of classy social statistics manipulation can be pointless without some social science understanding.

The Pure Pedantry post is about the claim that men and women have different numbers of sexual partners. The blogger sees this as inherently unlikely and refers to a mathematician David Gale who put that very point of view in the New York Times.

The obvious conclusion – that people lie about these things and they lie in ways that are not random but reflect social values about gender – convinces the blogger.

However, he updates the post with an explanation of how the seemingly irrational results could come from a confusion over the meaning of averages and medians in the statistics. This is all true, of course. However, it is irrelevant.

Whatever measurement you choose, the results are bull. They can only ever be bull, because there is no society on earth where ideas of maleness and femaleness are not socially constructed. So the results might tell you something about the meanings we attach to being a man or a woman but cannot say anything reliable about the actions of real men and women.

A thought experiment. Ask a thousand anonymous man and women about the number of sexual partners they have had. Ask another thousand anonymous men and women about the number of partners they believe is “normal”. You could probably guarantee that the results will broadly match, with the variation that men will report themselves at one or two above the mark and women will claim to be a mark or two beneath it.

Another thought experiment. Ask a thousand people some anonymous factual questions about their driving – “How many times have you ever driven over the speed limit?” “Do you ever drive when you are drunk?” and so on. The results would make you wonder how there are ever any accidents. Very few people would report themselves as driving in a potentially lethal way. Anonymity wouldn’t in itself make the results true, would it?

And it’s not just bragging or minimising. People don’t even tell themselves the truth. It’s the nature of society. Scientists aren’t immune from social values. A commenter on Pure Pedantry talks about girls with high numbers being “easy.” There is an entire lifetime of social conditioning in that phrase.

It’s a good post about how the choice of statistical methods can affect the interpretation of survey data. But there are some aspects of humanity that present far too much of a challenge to empirical observation to produce any meaningful results without some understanding of semiotics, cultural values, gender power relations, individual psychology and the whole rich world of social science knowledge.

I’m certainly not denying the validity of empirical data in the social sciences. The more the better. It’s just that we are nowhere near the point at which we can use people’s responses to questionnaires as evidence about their behaviour in the same direct way that we can use the number of bacteria on a slide as evidence for the presence of foot and mouth disease.

How many angels fit on a pinhead?

Comments on Pharyngula’s blog led me to a discussion about the Sam Harris & Chris Hedges debate. I know I don’t keep up – luckily there’s no god to judge my atheism orthodoxy – because this is ages old, but I found the tapes on truthdig.

This debate between Sam Harris (outspoken atheist) and Chris Hedges (Christian, outspoken against the fundamentalist right) is one of the rare debates that actually expand your thinking. Both are excellent speakers. Both make some unassailable points, as well as speak occasional tosh. (Like any of us. Except me of course.)

Lots of these “debate” things are just creationist fronts or debates about ideas, like the medieval discussions over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin (I.e the premise is meaningless, the detail is mind-numbing and the importance is non-existent.)

Ignore the content to some extent and just consider the approaches. Pure thought vs thought in the world. “Proper science” and “social science.”

“Proper science” is good at the logic. I.e.., it tells you that the “God” concept is nonsense. This is so self-evident that you can get pretty fed up with restating it. All the same, Sam Harris does it beautifully and probably as well as anyone can.

He also points out that the spiritual and ethical and emotional aspects of the human psyche don’t require a belief in a sky-god. This is always good to hear because religious believers can often appear to have cornered the market in transcendence.

Social science is good at understanding the ideological consequences of beliefs. Hence, Chris Hedges was able to discuss the social context that has created fundamentalism of every kind. (For instance, he argued that the basically secular PLO was ousted by Islamic fundamentalists, as a direct consequence of the actions of the US and Israel.) He’s not an atheist but I can’t see how that that makes him wrong. I couldn’t even see how most of what he said was affected one way or another by him being a believer. (Although I may not have been payng total attention.)

I don’t think there’s a real split between social science and “proper” science. However, a lot of “proper” scientists know much very little about social science. I certainly believe many atheists could learn a lot from the sociology of religion.

Reference, our recent ill-advised foray into a discussion of ADHD on the Pharyngula comments that seemed to do nothing but generate misconceptions… Say, for instance, a new psychoactive medicine is developed. “Proper” scientists can understand the biochemistry and study its mode of action. It is the realm of social science to ask questions about how it is used, why it is used, who has access to it, how do social relations influence what medicines are developed, who pays for the development, who pays for the end-product, what does it mean to the individual to experience its effects, and so on, ad infinitum. These are not just boring topics to “proper scientists” (just as biochemistry is to me) They are also things they have not been trained to evaluate (just as biochemistry is to me).

The different modes of thinking can be mutually incomprehensible. So, it’s great to find a real debate that illuminates an issue from two sides.

Ie, ignore the Christian stuff that comes from Hedges and consider the approach. That is, a recognition that ideas have consequences. Our beliefs have no importance except where they find social expression. Quoting Alun’s comment on a post here.

Someone with a personal hotline to a god with no social support is merely a lunatic (as defined by the rest of society)

Where everybody knows your name

Social policies, since Mrs Thatcher’s time, have done their damnedest to treat the old social groupings that used to exercise sociologists (class, race, gender…) as dispensable. Social structure is nothing. “There is no such thing as society.” Yada, yada.

Instead, we have these wierd amorphous groupings, called “communities.” I have very little idea what a community is. In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, an indigenous people’s village, where everybody hunts and gathers together, is probably a “community,” at least until it’s in the path of loggers or ranchers. A village in the English shires may still be something of a “community”, except for second-home-owners and the lack of a postoffice, a shop or a secondary school. When we get to where most of us live, the borders of our “community” are unguessable.

And this is before we start bringing in the many other “communities”, identified by any number of factors. The blogging community, FFS. The closest I can come to identifying a community is a group with shared interests and/or shared locality. There is also a warm fuzzy overtone. Your community accepts you and defends you and cares for you. No, really. That’s why “care in the community” has been so successful…. And “community wardens.” What a fantastic idea. It’s like the old days when the local bobby gave errant kids a clip round the ear. Firm but fair. You never had to lock your front door. (Yes. This is sarcasm. I reckon I have to go down the Homer Simpson route and spell it out more often. It wasn’t clear enough in the previous post)

(And, ironically, I live in one of the few places in the UK where people actually talk about “the Community” and “the Area” with almost audible capitals. And I often leave my front door open.)

I could attempt a reasonable definition of community, but why not just stop using a word when it has no meaning, rather than try to fit social policies round it?

My argument is that, as soon as you start focussing social policies on community groups (been there, got no t-shirts) rather than elected representatives, you give opportunities for unrepresentative self-promoters to control their localities. The increasing social role of extremist mullahs is one example of how an attribution of community leadership becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, it was quite refreshing to accidentally come across some research by Demos, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that manages to say this stuff more politely than I usually can.

November 2006 Do policies to promote community participation in governance build social capital? (Governance – another of my favourite words.. WTF is it? Social Capital? Ditto, but bear with me.)
The main points are

  • The key factor influencing levels of participation in governance was the existing pattern of ‘linking’ social capital: those already well-connected tend to get better connected.
  • Community participation tends to be dominated by a small group of insiders who are disproportionately involved in a large number of governance activities.
  • ..social capital … tends to be concentrated in the hands of this small group. There is no guarantee that the wider community feels the benefit of this social capital…
  • A number of forces create ‘barriers to entry’ for those not involved in governance, and increase the likelihood that those already involved will become more so.

etc. Look at the research if you are interested. There’s a lot more on that site that hammers this point home.