Field of Science

Lousiana elects a new governor: why does "conservative" mean "creationist"?

As a computational scientist and an evolutionary geneticist - and a professor - it pains me to see how many conservative politicians in the U.S. seem to believe in the anti-scientific Creationist view of life. This is currently promoted under the thin disguise of "intelligent design," but that isn't fooling anyone. Creationists (and intelligent design-ists) believe that the world and everything on it was created by a divine being some 6000 years ago. They simply ignore the enormous body of scientific evidence showing that species evolve through the process of natural selection, which has been going on for several billion years.

But today's topic is the election in Louisiana of a new governor, a conservative Republican named Bobby Jindal. Most of the news stories (for example, the NY Times) have focused on the fact that Mr. Jindal is the first-ever Indian American elected as governor of any state. The stories have also mentioned that the "social conservative" believes in teaching intelligent design instead of evolution in our public schools.

Stop right there. Does everyone in the conservative (Republican) movement in the U.S. believe the world was just created - poof! - by a magic puff of smoke just a few thousand years ago? Does becoming conservative mean that you cannot understand simple scientific evidence - even overwhelming evidence? Evolution is probably the most well-supported scientific theory in all of biology, with 150 years of accumulating evidence backing it up. It has changed over the years - a fact that some creationists use misleading to make it appear that evolution is on shaky ground - but the changes have deepened and strengthened the theory, not weakened it.

The genome sequencing work I've been involved in over the past dozen years has provided some of the strongest evidence yet about how species evolved and are continuing to evolve. The molecular evidence for evolution is just spectacular.

So I'm dismayed that Mr. Jindal promotes a view that will undermine science teaching in our schools. He isn't the only national figure that believes this (George W. Bush has also supported the teaching of creationism - it's hard to know if he is sincere or just pandering, though), but we need to start calling people out when they make ignorant statements.

So I'm asking for those of you who call yourselves "conservative" to start speaking out on behalf of evolution - and science in general. If you're a conservative (and I'm not, if that isn't obvious already), you should be embarrassed to be associated with the ignorant, anti-scientific drivel that "intelligent design" supporters spew out. Let me ask it another way: does "conservative" mean "anti-education" or even "anti-knowledge"? I hope not.

Oh great, more "alternative medicine" funding from NIH

Just before the Nobel Prizes were announced this week, NIH posted a delightful press release on its website announcing three new Centers of Excellence in Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Great! I'm so excited to hear that NIH is pouring more money down this oh-so-promising black hole of negative results and poorly conducted studies!

Now, I can just hear the CAM-fans protesting: "why are you opposed to doing studies of our methods? Are you afraid that studies will prove some of them work?" (This isn't a straw man argument, by the way - I've been asked precisely this question.) Well no, of course I'm not afraid that studies will prove that [acupuncture - homeopathy - naturopathy - Ayurveda - chiropractic - voodoo] will work. There are so many problems (with this CAM announcement) that I don't know where to begin, but one major problem is that studies have already been done, and all the results are negative. As CAM's acting director, Ruth Kirshstein, writes in her request for over $121 million for next year's CAM budget, NCCAM has supported research at more than 260 institutions over the past 7 years. Have any positive results emerged? No. Why throw good money after bad? We shouldn't.

Some of my blogosphere colleagues have already put forward some excellent arguments for why NCCAM's funding should be eliminated - see the recent post by Steven Novella, who argues:
Why can’t studies of CAM modalities be funded through the regular NIH? Because the NIH has standards, and what passes for research in the CAM world is often so laughably pathetic that it could never mean the NIH standard and get funded. NCCAM was created to provide a much lower standard for CAM research. In other words – waste money on studies that are not worth funding when judged by the usual criteria.
I couldn't have expressed it better. If this work is any good, it will get funded through the regular NIH mechanisms. Also see the comments of ScienceZoo, who points out that none of the three new CAM Centers are likely to find effective therapies for what they claim to be studying.

While I was celebrating this announcement from NIH, I couldn't help myself (I was so excited!!!) from looking at what their existing "Centers of Excellence" devote themselves to. You can find a list here, and it includes one for acupuncture (see my previous post on that topic), energy medicine (what the heck is that? I'll blog on it another time), and "mindfulness-based stress reduction" in HIV.

That last one is really rather appalling: they will investigate using meditation techniques as a way to "slow disease progression and delay the need for antiretroviral treatment." So they're going to tell HIV-positive patients to delay taking proven therapies and try meditation instead? How many patients need to die before they admit this isn't a good idea.

So you see, we have so much to celebrate this week. Three new NCCAM centers and a request for another $121 million in NCCAM funds next year. I'm so happy.