What is Human

The utter primacy of H. sapiens in all the theistic religions is one of the things that bothers me most deeply about them. I believe we are unique and unusually important amongst life on earth (as were the first oxygenic photosynthesizers, and the first eukaryotic organisms, and the first macroscopic multicellular life forms), but I don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value. Diminished, certainly, but still a precious place. By the same token, I think that we diminish the value of the earth by causing the extinction of other species.

I think this may actually be somewhat related to the abortion question, and the difficulty of coming to any kind of common ground on it. I don’t consider non-viable fetuses human, but to me that doesn’t mean they are without value, or undeserving of any kind of legal protections. I just don’t think those protections should be as extensive as our protections of humans.  People are resistant to the idea that “humanity” is a continuum.  Some might even say repelled by it, but it seems inescapable to me.  I also believe that severely mentally disabled people are “less” human, and that a brain-dead human is, for all intents and purposes, a cell culture with no more moral value than a side of beef.  This might seem like something we had better not talk about, since it starts off all kinds of slippery slopes to horrible places, but I think eventually, we will have no choice, because some time in the next few decades, or at most the next few centuries, we will be confronted with positive deviations as well as negative.

What will it mean to be human, when there exist super-humans?  When some portion of the population is genetically or cybernetically enhanced, will they have super-human rights, privledges, and responsibilities, or will they simply be more powerful through extra-legal means?

A person, even a politician, can stand up for human rights while condoning abortion if they do not consider the fetus human.  The core of the abortion argument is what does it mean to be human? Is it a discrete, or continuous classification?  Unless we can come to some consensus on these questions, the abortion issue, and many others, will remain vexing indefinitely.

Congress seeks to ban open access requirements

A bill duplicitously entitled the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” (HR 6845) has been introduced in congress with the goal of prohibiting federal science funding agencies such as the NIH, NSF, NASA, etc. from making their grants contingent upon open access to the published results.  Currently, a large proportion of federally funded biomedical research comes with a requirement that the results be listed in the Open Access PubMed database.  Proponents of Open Access journals have seen this policy as an example of the way things should work – publicly funded research should have publicly accessible results – but now this system, and progress in that direction, is in jeopardy.  HR 6845 would prohibit any federal funding agency from making their funds contingent on public access to the results.

The bill has been referred to the House judicial committee.  Our representative, Adam Schiff, is on the committee.  If you support open access to scientific publications – especially publicly funded scientific research, please contact him and tell him to oppose the bill.  Senator Feinstein is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and should also be contacted.

More information including background on the NIH open access policy can be found at the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.  You can track the bill’s progress at OpenCongress.org.  If you do call, write, fax, or e-mail your representative or senator, please e-mail Jennifer McLennan (jennifer [at] arl [dot] org) and let her know.

Congress has failed us on renewable energy again

Last week Congress left DC for its summer vacation without extending the federal tax credits for investments in renewable energy. This is an abject failure on the part of our elected representatives. Without these tax credits, the booming renewable energy industry will grind to a halt come December 31st. Already, companies like EI Solutions in Pasadena, that design and build large solar installations, have been forced to stop signing contracts for projects that cannot be completed before the end of the year. For years these tax incentives have been renewed only on an annual basis, and sometimes only at the last minute, or even retroactively, making it impossible for the industry to develop long range business plans and investments.

At the same time, we reliably subsidize the mature, well capitalized, and fabulously profitable domestic fossil fuel industries, encouraging our dependence on polluting, finite, and often foreign resources. This doesn’t make any sense, because the oil, gas, and coal companies already have they capital they need to make investments in additional production capacity, but they choose not to, and instead return their profits to their shareholders. On the other hand, tax credits for renewables currently make or break the industry.

Which should we be doing? Pouring money into the pockets of ExxonMobil shareholders, or fostering the emergence and growth of a domestic, renewable, clean, energy industry, that can provide thousands of new jobs in California. I think the choice is clear. Evidently, Congress feels otherwise. An army of lobbyists paid by the fossil fuel industry has made sure of it. We don’t have to depend on fossil fuels forever, but unless we demand change from our elected representatives, they are going to keep listening to the campaign contributions.

Science Framed at Caltech

Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet came to Caltech and gave SASS talk on Monday night, and ran a science media messaging workshop entitled Speaking Science Bootcamp all day Tuesday. It was great. Anybody who’s getting a PhD in science should go through at least that much communication training, and if they’re in an area that has policy implications, or they have any interest whatsoever in doing outreach or communication of science, they should have a week long course on the same material.
Continue reading Science Framed at Caltech

Freeman Dyson on Climate

The futurist and physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on Climate Change. He’s a very (very) bright guy, but I think he is wrong. Actually, I think that the whole framing of the climate issue in the media, in the government, and possibly in many scientific circles, is wrong. Continue reading Freeman Dyson on Climate