Basic Science

Taboos of science

It’s because the earth revolves around the sun. Natural selection; it’s how like species become new species. Well, then it’s okay to clone and genetically modify like crops and other animals, so why can’t we do people? Scientists really should be taking a better look at the [long beep]What was, what was that? Did I like, did I say something I wasn’t supposed to talk about? Well guess what, there’s more where that came from. A lot more, and we haven’t even mentioned the poop yet. You might wanna get used to that uncomfortable feeling because today we are talking about the taboos of science. Now, hopefully you know that societies have a lot of hang ups like how people look and how they act and who they knock boots with and it’s mostly pretty stupid stuff.

But taboos are no joke they are powerful things and when it comes to science taboos can keep all kinds of things from being studied or even talked about. Take for example the story of Hungarian physician IGNAZ SEMMELWEIS. In 1840, Semmelweis had the audacity to suggest that doctors in maternity clinics should wash their hands before examining pregnant women and babies. An act he correctly predicted would drastically reduce childbed fever mortality rates. So how did his colleagues react to this advice? Uh, not well. His hypothesis that doctor’s hands were somehow “carrying” diseases around and causing it in babies was ridiculed.

The germ theory didn’t exist at the time and doctors were offended at the idea of having to wash their hands, possibly also offended at the idea that they had previously been killing their patients. So, Semmelweis was fired from his hospital in Austria and faced so much harassment from the medical community that he was forced to move back to Budapest. After decades of anger and bitterness, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum where he died in 1865. Of course, it would only be a few years before Louis Pasteur would come around and confirms Semmelweis’s findings with his germ theory of disease and Semmelweis is now remembered as a pioneer in antiseptic procedures. The story of Dr. Semmelweis helps illustrate the power of a taboo.

When social norms forbid a certain practice or way of thinking and the risk that come along with challenging a taboo. In fact, there is a name our tendency to reject a piece of evidence or new theory when it contradicts social norms. And it’s called the Semmelweis Reflex. So yeah, science taboos have existed pretty much forever, going back to Darwin and Galileo, and even the ancient Greeks. But what about today? Here we run into a bit of a Catch-22, by definition, scientists aren’t willing to talk about taboos.

Sometimes just because they don’t want to talk about it, sometimes out of fear of losing their jobs or their tenure or their credibility. Once you start looking, it’s clear that almost every scientific discipline from biology to medicine, to astronomy to physics, has their own subjects they like to keep hush-hush. One person, really the only person, who speaks at length about scientific taboos these days is this guy named DEAN RADIN at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which was founded to study consciousness and healing.

Emissions that basically make the institute a taboo in itself. But no matter how crazy some of his scientific ideas are, his thoughts on taboos are actually pretty interesting. He breaks them down into three categories: transitory taboos, stubborn taboos, and super double secret super taboos. Transitory taboos being controversial topics that gradually become less controversial over time. Science has a lot of transitory taboos; practises that not only accepted today — they’re practically mandatory.

Like vaccinations, organ donations, blood transfusions. At one time or another, all these things were considered either medically impossible or dangerous quackery. Today, they remain scientific procedures that are controversial but are still done, like embryonic stem cell research or maybe even a better example, embryos that contain both human and animal cells — chimeras. Now the idea of fusing together different species is not cool with a lot of people, but it’s done in labs around the world. Transplanting human stem cells into prenatal non-human animals allow scientist to study human cell development without directly using human embryos. So, chimeras have been created fusing human cells with rabbits, and pigs have been created with human blood cells. Yes, there are mice running around in labs right now that contain human brain cells.

Now it starts on where the conversation often turns to cloning, which is where you enter into some serious stubborn taboo territory. Since Dolly the Sheep became the first mammal to be cloned in 1996, scientist have cloned: mice, dogs, cows, pigs. The FDA has deemed that milk and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat and drink. You’d think it was practically mainstream. You start talking about cloning humans, you’re not just talking about breaking taboos, you’re probably also breaking laws. Research into human cloning is illegal in many countries including all of the European Union, Australia, and Canada. And thirteen states.

But not here in Montana. Ah yeah! So why the taboo? Well, there are lots of ethical and religious arguments, but it’s the biological arguments that really make the topic off limits, because cloning is hard and it’s dangerous. Attempts at animal cloning produce many dead, deformed, and diseased animals. Not to mention lots of embryos and fetuses that are loss. Cloning pioneer, Dr. JAMES ROBL, has said that in addition to those dangers and the low survival of offspring, you’d need a huge number of donor eggs and women willing to be surrogate mothers. Which makes human cloning a really big problem.

And as far as we know, a human clone has yet to be born, though not for lack of trying. In 2009, a Greek biologist, whose name I cannot pronounce, claimed to have cloned fourteen human embryos and transferred eleven of them into four women. He was either lying or the transfer failed, either way, it did not go over well with the biology community. But really, human cloning is just so last season as taboos go. If you’re looking for a taboo for today’s scientist, allow me to introduce you to synthetic biology, otherwise known as “extreme genetic engineering.”

This is an emerging technology in which genetic strains of organisms can be changed or created from scratch to allow the organisms to perform different functions, like new algae-engineered produced biofuels or bacteria altered to fight disease. Of March of 2012, a host of different advocacies organizations called for a moratorium on the release and commercial use of these synthetic organisms and their product, until regulations can be established. The groups also called for a ban on manipulating the human genome… or the genomes of the microbes that live in or on the human body; don’t leave them out. So far we mainly talked about biology and genetics taboos but what about taboos in other disciplines?

Well in the field of mental health there is sex especially anything other than heterosexual sex. For instance gender identity has become less of a taboo topic in recent years. But many psychiatric organizations still classify gender dysphoria as a mental illness. So should for instance a child who doesn’t identify with their physical sex be given drugs to delay the onset of puberty? Giving them more chance to decide if they want a sex change? And then there is the question whether sexual orientation is partially decided by your genetic code or perhaps more taboo questions should we even be looking for these things. Well, at least one study of gay brothers, by geneticist Dean Hammer, claimed to find a link between DNA markers on the X-chromosome and male sexual orientation.

In physics you could argue that it’s taboo to contradict Einstein. Look what happened when certain physicists appeared to have clocked neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, which is of course impossible under Einstein’s theory of special relativity. When the news got out that the scientists had made a mistake, which they pretty much already knew. The media went nuts with headlines, like: “Einstein vindicated!” and “Einstein owns Cern physicist from the grave”.

As for archaeology it’s practically off-limits as an entire discipline in some cultures. In Israel, for instance, some ultra-orthodox groups regularly protest archaeological digs because they consider it sacrilegious to disturb human remains. Now, finally, there are these supposedly double secret super taboos, according to Dean Radin. Here he includes things like spirituality and consciousness or what he calls “psychic phenomenon”. Now, as far as I’m concerned these topics don’t have much to do with science, so I see them more as irrelevant rather than taboo. But maybe the most dangerous secret taboo in science today is what Radin and others have identified as the “Poo Taboo”.

Now, this is an important public health topic that not enough people want to talk about and address because it has to do with poop and that makes people uncomfortable. There are over 7 billion people on Earth and only about 1.5 billion of those people use flush toilets that are connected to sewage systems and that’s just not right. Human waste is a major breeding ground for pathogens and parasites that end up contaminating ground and surface water supplies if it’s not disposed of properly. And when it’s not you end up with a global sanitation crisis.

Unfortunately what has been dubbed the “Psychology of Excrement” often prevents solutions from being discussed on local, national, or global levels. It’s proved to be such a frustrating taboo that some scientific and humanitarian groups have challenged it head on namely with world toilet day, which celebrated it’s 10th anniversary last November. It’s basically a day to heighten awareness about a topic that people don’t like to discuss and raise money for sanitation champions like nonprofits that help with public health needs around the world. So I say we take a page from the toilet day playbook and pull some important scientific taboos out of the closet.

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