Friday, November 23, 2007

Always Hoping For A "Star Trek Ending"


One of the weaknesses of the Star Trek, The Next Generation series was its tendency for its writers to paint themselves into a corner, and then for the escape to be the fabrication of new technology - a new feature, gizmo or anomaly that allows a clean escape. The funny thing is, people think this way so most people probably didn't recognize the contrivance. For some Trekkies, this becomes a loop that feeds itself - I once heard somebody declare that food would never be in short supply because scientists would develop "replicators" (give a voice command and molecules are instantly assembled into pretty much whatever you demand), never mind the science involved.

Here's somebody who should know better.
A couple years ago I wrote a post asserting that technology and markets are more powerful than government and politics. I cited the government's case against microsoft and the emergence of the morning after pill and other remedies like it to give women the right to choose even if the government decides to take it away.

The whole stem cell debate is another example of this. For the past nine years, our country has been debating the morality of using embryonic stem cells to do research and develop new drugs and possibly save lives and dramatically improve quality of life for some. Our current administration has made it hard to do stem cell research on embryonic stem cells.

But this week comes the news that researchers have figured out how to make stem cells from human skin cells.
The initial argument is simplistic - the government has demonstrated that it is more than capable of keeping "the morning after pill" away from consumers, and some states were happy to let pharmacists decline to offer it to customers. Technology that is not available does not create choice. But the bigger problem lies in the substitution of wishful thinking for analysis - with stem cells, a scientist using government grant money opened up one can of worms, and after the government responded in a non-scientific fashion (which isn't even morally consistent), the same scientist received more government money to find a different way to develop stem cell lines.

If the current findings are confirmed, yes, it removes one of the most difficult moral impediments to stem cell research. But what we're really talking about here is a scientific advance necessitated by government policy, which would not have happened but for government funding. It may be a triumph of technology, but it is hardly a triumph of the markets.
But the great thing about technology is it always tries to solve the problems it creates. And has a track record of doing so.

Next up - our reliance on carbon-based energy and the pollution, climate change, and wealth and power effects it creates.
This type of wishful thinking.... It's a bit like swallowing arsenic then expecting a miracle cure. Science can't always save you and, even if the magic cure might eventually come, there's a substantial chance that it will arrive too late to help. This type of faith comes close to elevating science and "the markets" to a religion - and, dare I point out, it is non-scientific.

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