Tag Archives: Science

Babies With Three Parents: What UK Approval Really Means

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

Everyone knows how the political system works. Whenever there is a pressing need for legislative action, the politicians do nothing at all. Either that, or they wait until lots of people die, then enact laws that half-fix the problem, usually making things worse.

A case of the former in the United States: climate change. Not only has U.S. Congress failed to act, but the political party that controls both houses of Congress won’t even admit that the problem exists. An example of the latter is healthcare. Tens of thousands of Americans have been dying every year because they can’t afford to see a doctor, so finally the United States joined the rest of the world by passing a national healthcare system, a.k.a. Obamacare, which may mark the first time in history that the US government has charged poor people a fine for refusing to buy a service.

We know that this is not a good system.

But it is the system that America, like most other countries, has always had. In the same way that people who live near rhinos know that they may get stomped by one of the armored creatures on a rampage, Americans are accustomed to the dysfunction of their political system. While it might be too much to say that we like to pay a substantial share of our income in taxes to support a government that either ignores our needs and desires, or messes things up even worse when it pays attention to them, no one expects this to change anytime soon.

As with the sun rising in the east, this is our reality.

Which is why the latest news from Great Britain makes our selective heads hurt.

“Britain’s House of Commons gave preliminary approval Tuesday to permitting scientists to create babies from the DNA of three people, a technique that could protect some children from inheriting potentially fatal diseases from their mothers,” reports the Associated Press.

Whaaaaaaaa—?

Did you know it was possible to make kids out of three people’s DNA?

No. Bet you didn’t.

How do I know? Because I didn’t. And I’m a double nerd: I read all the news and I’m especially interested in science. If there’s a weird story about science, and anyone has heard about it, it’s me.

Pretty freaky stuff. But that’s not the point here. The point is, Britain’s political system – which is even older than ours – is legalizing something that most people haven’t even heard of, much less been able to form an opinion about.

So far along are the Brits with this whole three-parent thing that their ethicists are publicly expressing a concern that this will open the door to eugenics on a grand scale, so-called “designer babies” whose genetic makeup would be predetermined by parents taking off a checklist of yesses and nos.

“The technique involves removing the nucleus DNA from the egg of a prospective mother and inserting it into a donor egg from which the nucleus DNA has been removed. This can be done before or after fertilization. The resulting embryo would have the nucleus DNA from its parents but the mitochondrial DNA from the donor. Scientists say the DNA from the donor egg amounts to less than 1 percent of the resulting embryo’s genes,” says the AP.

Whoa.

If 50 percent of Americans can define the word “mitochondria,” I will eat a garden slug. Hell, if 50 percent of American Congressmen were aware of this technique before today’s news, I’ll eat two.

I find it deeply distressing that there is an actual nation, much less one which kind of speaks English as one of its major languages, whose elected representatives (a) know anything about science, (b) know something about science before I do, and (c) have absorbed that knowledge so thoroughly that they are ready to propose, debate and actually pass a law in response to their scientific knowledge.

Forget Sputnik.

America is over.

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Settled Science

Does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth? When asked that question in a poll, 1 in 4 Americans surveyed answered that the sun revolves around the earth. But hey, we have to respect their feelings too.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Don’t Kids Want to Study Engineering? Because Engineering Friggin’ Sucks.

http://mcstemcareers.pbworks.com/f/1300060168/STEM%20Logo.png

Sexing Up Science Won’t Solve a Dearth of STEM Majors

According to a survey, nearly 90% of 16- and 17-year-olds have no interest in a STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) career.

The climate is crashing, the NSA is tracking our porn, and the 99% haven’t gotten a raise in decades, but the party organ of America’s ruling class is truly, awfully worried about our imminent STEMlessness. A lot.

“The number of students who want to pursue engineering or computer science jobs is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the need for those workers is soaring,” writes The Editorial Board of The New York Times, which is composed of editors no one has heard of, yet whose opinions we are all supposed to care about. “Within five years, there will be 2.4 million STEM job openings,” write The Editors.

Who, in the future, will program the great fleets of killer drones? Who will pilot them? It would suck to lose that business to the Chinese.

Whenever the question of Why No One Wants to Study Engineering comes up, the media always comes back with the same answer: conning convincing kids that STEM stuff isn’t boring.

“Most schools continue to teach math and science in an off-putting way that appeals only to the most fervent students,” the Times editors complain. Sex up the sciences — that’s the ticket!

Texas Instruments (they’re still around?) has hired neuroscientist/”Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik as a “STEM education brand ambassador” to sing the praises of partial differential equations using framing that the Kids of Today/Worker Bees of Tomorrow can relate to. “Who doesn’t know something about zombies or superheroes?” asks Bialik. “These cultural archetypes can do more than just entertain. Zombies, it turns out, can teach real science and mathematical concepts like exponential growth curves and the intricacies of human anatomy and anatomical degradation. Superheroes can prompt a variety of questions that draw on physics, such as: How does one actually travel faster than the speed of light?”

Is it me, or does this seem a little…forced?

Hey, I’m as geeky as they come. When an engineer who designed famous roller coasters gave a talk at my Ohio high school, I was enthralled. (My classmates, not so much.) But I still didn’t want to study engineering — and it wasn’t because science is boring.

I loved math, chemistry and physics in high school. I studied years ahead. I got perfect grades and tested so well that Columbia’s School of Engineering offered me a full scholarship and a well-paid teachers assistant job.

Still, I didn’t want to go. Not because math and science bored me — to the contrary. I dreaded it because I knew engineering school would probably be a sucky experience and that a career in the sciences would be depressing.

Not that my parents cared what I wanted. They bullied me into going anyway because (a) Columbia gave me the most financial aid of the schools I applied to, and (b) something “practical” like engineering guarantees a steady well-paid job after graduation. (Ha.) So off I went.

Guess what? Engineering school was a sucky experience.

My experience at Columbia highlights reasons — aside from the alleged tedium of math and science — that most young people aren’t interested in the STEM professions:

  • When you study math and science, your classmates are boring. At Columbia the engineering majors were politically disengaged, careerist, nose-to-the-grindstone types you’d never find working over the world’s problems at an overnight BS session — much less checking out a punk concert. They were academically smart and deadly dull. After graduation, people similar in personality to your fellow students become your colleagues. Engineering isn’t boring. Engineers are. Working with boring engineers is a bummer.
  • STEM majors get much lower grades than liberal arts majors. Tougher grading causes lower GPAs, so dropout and expulsion rates are also much higher: three out of four liberal art majors get a degree, only one out of four STEM majors. During freshman orientation, Columbia’s dean of students told us that 75% of us would drop out or get expelled. I wondered why I was there. (After three years, I was expelled with a 2.4 GPA. Which I worked hard for.) Why take out massive student loans for a one-in-four chance at a degree? Though some studies deny the difference, 60% of freshman engineering students are gone, dropped out or transferred to the liberal arts, by the end of their freshman year. These kids aren’t stupid or lazy — they were smart and studious enough to get admitted in the first place.
  • Low social status. Guys don’t make passes at girls who wear safety glasses; girls suddenly remember something they forgot in the ladies room when you tell them you’re an electrical engineer. Because (see above) engineers are boring. Also: in America’s anti-intellectual culture, it’s not cool or hip or prestigious to be a scientist.
  • STEM employment is sporadic (they say “cyclical”). What’s the point of playing it safe when it’s not, well, safe? The STEM major you pick as a freshman may easily be obsolete by the time you hit the senior year job fair. Even if not, it’s extremely unlikely your chosen scientific field will provide steady employment for years to come. Currently, as the Powers That Be say they need STEMmers, unemployment is sky high among STEM professionals. As of 2009, nearly 9% of electrical engineers were jobless. Oh, and it turns out that STEM majors actually don’t earn more than their liberal arts counterparts.

“Indeed, science and engineering careers in the U.S. appear to be relatively unattractive” compared with other career paths, Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, which funds basic scientific, economic and civic research, testified to Congress in 2007.

High-school students know what’s up. They hear from older siblings how hard it is to graduate from engineering school. They watch their friends’ parents lose their jobs from supposedly “safe” STEM outfits. They’re not going to change their minds until reality improves.

Some fixes:

  • De-ghettoize STEM majors within colleges and universities. Require STEM majors to take lots of liberal arts classes — it’s not like a math major shouldn’t study Spanish literature — and require liberal arts majors to take more math and science. Mix up the student bodies. Think about someone like Steve Jobs, whose design sense came from his love of art and calligraphy. The divide between English and physics majors is artificial and outdated. Crosspollinate.
  • Put an end to the grading disparity between STEM majors and liberal arts. It’s unfair and it’s stupid. At Harvard, the average grade is an “A-“, and why not? The average Harvard student is intelligent and hardworking — and so is the average Columbia engineering student. Harvard’s softer grading regime hasn’t cost the school any reputation points.
  • If America wants STEM majors from America, it ought to stop importing them from overseas. “When the companies say they can’t hire anyone [for STEM jobs], they mean that they can’t hire anyone at the wage they want to pay,” Jennifer Hunt, a Rutgers University labor economist, said in 2012. So they outsource STEM jobs overseas and game the work visa program to import cheaper foreign scientists. “Tech companies that import temporary workers, mainly recent graduates from India, commonly discard more expensive, experienced employees in their late 30s or early 40s, often forcing them, as Ron Hira and other labor-force researchers note, to train their replacements as they exit,” reports the Columbia Journalism Review. Until STEM unemployment among Americans is 0%, Congress ought to get rid of the visa program.
  • Even cultural perceptions can be changed. If President Obama and other members of the political class are serious about promoting STEM careers, they could start featuring our best mathematicians and chemists at events like the State of the Union Address rather than the usual parade of military veterans. The Soviet Union pimped its scientific minds big time; kids who admired these intellectual heroes followed in their footsteps.

Math and science aren’t boring. But asking people to dedicate their lives to careers that won’t pay off is dumb.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: Another Year

 

Pack Your Bags

I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times about issues related to California and the Southland (metro Los Angeles).

This week:

Angelenos try not to think about the shifting plates beneath their feet and their wheels, but everyone knows the Big One is coming — and a bad enough one is coming sooner than that.

Short of moving somewhere where tectonics aren’t quite as disconcerting (i.e., where it snows) there isn’t much we can do about earthquakes. But we can prepare for the worst by mitigating the damage.

Toward that end, Los Angeles city building officials are creating a list of “soft story” wood-frame buildings that were built before 1978. “Soft-story structures often are built over carports and held up with slender columns, leaving the upper floors to crash into ground-floor apartments during shaking,” Rosanna Xia and Rong-Gong Lin II report in the Times.

There are probably about 6,000 of these buildings. The city says it will take at least a year to complete a list. After that, a retrofitting program will be put in place.

But what if an earthquake happens between now and then? It’s not like Mother (or, not to be sexist, Father) Nature waits for bureaucracy to work its magic.

Yeah, I’m a negative cuss.

So anyway, I began thinking about what, if anything, could be done to stave off the inevitable for at least a year — because the idea that this can wait another year is both horrible and amusing at the same time. How do these people think? Walk softly? Pray?

I know. They’re just civil servants trying to do their jobs with shrinking budgets and limited resources. But if, God or fire demon forbid, something bad happens before that retrofit project is finished, everyone is going look back and wonder why we didn’t throw money at it to get it done faster.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Self-Censoring of America

How Sellouts Are Killing Growth

Are you a sellout?

If you came of age during the 1960s, whether or not to sell out was the existential question of your generation. Which to choose? Reckless youthful abandon or corporate “adult” obeisance? Films that dealt with that quandary, from “The Graduate” to Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” launched a million rap sessions, yet Baby Boomers are sure to leave this ethical dilemma unresolved.

My fellow travelers, we of unlucky, witty Generation X, have lived constrained careers with fewer options. Coupled with shrinking financial aid for college, the dismal job market made the choice between Wall Street and the Peace Corps depressingly simple. So we Gen Xers projected the debate onto practitioners of pop culture. Vanilla Ice, Milli Vanilli and The Knack, judged all commerce no art, were shunned. Artists who cashed in could be deemed genuine, but only if they took chances and/or made decisions that were bad for business: The Clash, Elvis Costello, RUN-DMC, Nirvana.

The booms have gotten shorter, the busts longer, the class divide deeper. The long-predicted winner-take-all society has arrived. A higher share of the income generated by each economic sector goes to a select few; others fight over scraps.

The cost of integrity and the payoff for selling out have risen. So fewer Americans are taking chances.

People are holding on to jobs they hate, making it harder for young people to find work. Businesses are hanging tight, picking safe bets (stuff that worked before) and slashing budgets for research and innovation. Banks and other would-be investors are hoarding cash. As a result, fewer entrepreneurs are starting new businesses.

Everyone makes concessions to the marketplace. I pride myself on ideological consistency and calling things as I see them even if offends my fans. But I rarely put vulgar words into my cartoons because newspaper and magazine editors won’t run them. (If I lived in, say, England, I wouldn’t have this problem.)
Charles Schulz was one of the richest men in America, his work licensed on billions of dollars of merchandise, yet comics fans lionize “Peanuts” because the strip itself is edgy and relatively uncompromising—more art than commerce.

“Right now, the pressures of the music industry encourage me to change the walk of my songs,” the Somali-Canadian musician K’naan wrote recently. “My lyrics should change, my label’s executives said; radio programmers avoid subjects too far from fun and self-absorption.”

It’s easy to tell K’naan to keep it real. But it’s not realistic.

Keeping it real doesn’t pay the rent.

Selling out does.

“Good work always finds success,” an old boss assured me. What a lie! The cutout bins of bookstores and CD stores (if you can find one) provide all the proof you need. People buy what advertising and publicists tell them to buy. If a cool author falls in the woods, she might make a sound—but no one will ever find her book at the front of the store, much less getting interviewed by Jon Stewart.

When artists rely on capitalist markets—hopelessly corrupt, governed by gatekeepers who distribute and promote vacuous apolitical pabulum over work that challenges conventional wisdom—the freedom to choose integrity over selling out is a fraud.

“If this was censorship, I thought, it was a new kind—one I had to do to myself,” K’naan continued. “The label wasn’t telling me what to do. No, it was just giving me choices and information about my audience.”

Make a living or starve. Or give up your dreams and silence yourself. Can anyone call that a real choice?

We see the same “choice” in politics. Senator Marco Rubio recently embarrassed himself twice, first by pandering to the idiot base of the Republican Party, then walking back his stance on creationism.

“Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries,” he told GQ.

After a month of ridicule, Rubio acknowledged the existence of science: “[The age of the Earth] is at least 4.5 billion years old.”

Rubio explained his reasoning: “I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. And that means teaching them science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile those two things.”

Science isn’t reconcilable with faith. Rubio knows that. But he also knows what would happen to his presidential aspirations if he admitted the truth.

God is a lie.

If you believe in God, you are stupid.

If you think the earth is 6,000 years old, that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and/or that climate change isn’t real or caused by people, you are an idiot.

Since many of my readers believe in God, the words above will cost me sales and clients. Optimists might argue that being forthright about my beliefs will attract at least as many new customers. But that’s not the way the world works.

Integrity means doing the right thing even—especially—when it hurts you. But you have to question the philosophical underpinnings—and the future—of a society that requires its leaders and artists to work at Starbucks or to act stupider than they really are in order to get elected or sell records or books or whatever. Taking chances—which includes causing outrage—is how civilization tests new ideas, and how it progresses.

Not that they let you say whatever you want at Starbucks.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. The author of “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” he is working on a new book about the war in Afghanistan to be released in Fall 2013 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

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The Genius of Science Denial

Denying science isn’t dumb. It’s a brilliant strategy for governing the country! Consider the possibilities that open up when you refuse to live within the constraints of time and space.

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Rape as God’s Will

Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign says he still supports Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock after Mourdock said “God intended” pregnancies that result from rape. The campaign has not asked Mourdock to pull a TV ad featuring Romney. Mourdock, who has been locked in one of the country’s most expensive and closely watched Senate races, was asked during the final minutes of a debate Tuesday night whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest. “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen,” Mourdock said.

This time: I explain Republican science.

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