Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don't Know Much about Stem Cell Research -- Writer's Poke #334

The number of scientists (or those with a strong science background) in Congress is very small, and yet it is Congress that has the power to decide how to regulate stem cell research. Does this make sense? Most individuals in Congress may be relatively intelligent, but how many use their intelligence to make informed decisions? Probably fewer than have strong science backgrounds.

In other words, politicians make their decisions based on politics. When it comes to stem cell research, my assumption is that most in Congress know about as much as I do about the topic, which is to say, not all that much. And yet, many of those in power have an open distrust for scientists. Why this distrust exists, I’m not sure, unless it’s because most scientists do not subscribe to the political views of a particular party.

Perhaps some politicians do not view scientists as being “true Americans.” After all, scientists are more likely not to believe in God, and scientists also have this weird fascination with using scientific method. Politicians, on the other hand, like to make decisions based on “common sense” and what their guts tell them.

When it comes to using common sense and gut instinct regarding stem cell research, I would suggest that common sense should tell us that we should do what we can to help prevent human suffering, and my gut tells me that stem cell research would help accomplish this goal.

Is it best to use common sense and “gut instinct” to determine sound scientific policy?

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” – Albert Einstein

Friday, October 28, 2011

Malcolm X and Capitalism -- Writer's Poke #333

“I have a copy of Malcolm X,” I said, “can we do a public screening at the college for Black History Month.” Sure, the librarian told me, but she reminded me that the DVD I had was licensed solely for my own personal viewing. If I wanted to screen the movie in public, the college would need to purchase a public-viewing license from the production company. And how much will that cost? I wondered. She emailed the company, and they told her the cost would be $500.

Even though I had the DVD in my possession, we weren’t allowed to use that copy. Instead, when we paid the $500 fee, the company sent another copy of the movie. To the naked eye, it looked exactly the same as my copy, but knowing that it cost $500 made it special. I should point out, too, that the licensing agreement was for a one-time public viewing. Just because we paid $500 didn’t mean we had the right to show it over and over and over again.

So we promoted the event around campus. We promised popcorn and soda. We even promoted an essay contest tie-in to the movie. This would be a huge, well-attended event, for sure. And assuming we scored a large crowd, no administrator would bother us about the $500 now removed from the Library’s media budget.

On the night of the screening, the big crowd never materialized. A total of seven people arrived to watch the film; of the seven, only three ended up participating in the essay contest. And no DVD police were anywhere in sight that evening. We could have used my copy of the DVD and saved the college $500, but I don’t hold any animosity toward the production company. They deserve their money; after all, someone had to fund the making of the film. They’re in the business to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just thankful Malcolm X was made and that seven more people had the chance to see it.

Companies in capitalist societies are in business to make money. Is it appropriate, then, when they are sometimes viewed as being greedy for simply trying to live up to their purpose for being?

“When we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use.” – Joseph Stalin

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Programming Altruism -- Writer's Poke #332

Some people call it “paying it forward.” The idea is simple: just be nice to others. This sounds suspiciously like the Golden Rule, but how many of us actually like rules, golden or otherwise? Rules are, after all, so limiting, and nobody enjoys being told what to do, even if it’s for our own benefit.

Next time you’re at the McDonald’s drive-thru, consider telling the cashier that you’d like to pay for the person’s order behind you. Have you ever done this? It’s a small act of anonymous giving. You will never see the person’s reaction to this unexpected gift, and you’ll never even know if the person “deserved” the gift or not, but isn’t it silly to consider whether or not a person “deserves” a gift?

Santa Claus might ponder whether a person’s been naughty or nice, but that’s not our role. True gift-giving requires us to provide the gift without attaching any sort of judgment. Otherwise, it is not a gift freely given, and a gift with strings attached is no gift at all, really.

Most people, I imagine, would have a hard time convincing themselves to pay the $5 or $10 McDonalds bill for a complete stranger. Why? Are most of us so poor that we cannot afford it? Or, if poverty isn’t the explanation, would it be fair to say we’re simply too greedy? We would never expect others to pay for our meal, so why should we pay for someone else?

Even friends don’t always offer to pick up the tab when eating together. And isn’t that an awkward moment? Will he pick up the tab? Should I? Is it okay if we just split the ticket? If we split the ticket, nobody’s feelings will be hurt, right? And after all, if I pick up the tab, it could lead to resentment (e.g. I always pick up the tab, and that cheapskate never even pretends to offer).

Human nature. Perhaps there’s something faulty in our programming.

How can we develop a truly altruistic nature – one that avoids judgment, resentment, or expectations?

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish.” – Richard Dawkins

“If civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” – Ayn Rand

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Parts for Sale -- Writer's Poke #331

When I woke up, I discovered I was in my bathtub, but instead of with warm water, it was filled with ice. How long had I been asleep, and who had filled my bathtub with ice? As I stood up, I noticed that some of the ice was red, and that’s when I felt the sharp pain in my back.

I stumbled over to the bathroom mirror, and as I turned to examine my back, what I saw reminded me of my stupidity and greed. College had left me saddled with thousands of dollars in student loans. I would be paying off my four years of non-stop partying for the next 30 years.

So, yes, I was desperate. The girl I planned to marry told me that she didn’t want to start our lives together in debt. Basically, she told me that she loved me, but she didn’t love me enough to marry me – not until I had my financial situation fixed to her satisfaction.

It didn’t take me long to find John. He called himself a “problem solver,” and he told me that I had my own personal savings account. At first I had no idea what he was talking about, because I had never saved a dime in my life, and then he spelled it out for me. “You’re a perfectly healthy young man,” he said, “And guess what? You have two kidneys, but one is redundant! You only need one.” He promised me $15,000, and like I fool, I said yes.

As I stared at the jagged line of stitches that ran along the left side of my lower back, I noticed the check on the bathroom countertop. Assuming the check cleared, John had come through for me -- $15,000 – the price of a new life.

If selling your own body parts were legal, how much money would it take to tempt you to sell a kidney? Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe a person should have a right to sell a body part? To eliminate the need for body parts, would you support mandatory donation of body parts upon death?

“The human body is the only machine for which there are no spare parts.” – Hermann M. Biggs