Fraudulent Stem Cell Scientist Quits

12/24/2005: Hwang Woo Suk, a Korean stem cell researcher who once claimed to have cloned human cells and created stem cell colonies from patients, has been proven fraudulent. After $65 million since 1998, all he has to show is fraud and fabrication. (Suk really sucks.)

So far, there have been ample strides made in adult stem cell research (ASC), but still nothing of worth in embryonic stem cell research (ESC). After much fanfare in the May 2005 edition of Science magazine, we now know it was fraud.

This is not to say that all scientists are fakes and frauds. Nor does this mean that the study of science is bad. Scientists are every bit as human–and driven as much by greed and self-interest–as the fraudulent CEOs of corporate America. Human nature is what it is.

However, this sends a warning to us all. We should treat scientific claims with the same skepticism with which we treat everything else. Last week, the Wall Street Journal showed how drug companies team up with academic researchers and professional writers in order to market drugs in academic research journals.

Now, in the controversial field of ESC and cloning, we are learning of the fraudulent claims of scientists in a field that has yet to show–after 25 years of research–any substantive benefit to humanity.

Just remember: that a scientist claims it–and a scientific magazine touts it–does not make it true.

That is not to knock all scientists; however, they are as deserving of the criticism of free inquiry as anyone else.

Where does Intelligent Design Fit?

12/24/2005: Many skeptics dismiss Intelligent Design (ID) as the work of religious fundamentalists. While the latter have latched onto it, ID intersects two disciplines: natural sciences and engineering. For that reason, ID–while beyond the scope of the empirical method–has a legitimate place for discussion in a science class.

ID is an engineering observation, not a scientific one. Scientists are correct when they argue that ID is not scientific. However, ID–being an engineering observation–is worth discussing. Engineers know what design is; it is what they do for a living. Suggesting that elements of nature show evidence of design is a very legitimate observation with ample rational basis.

Homeostatic controls are examples of feedback control systems, which are a significant part of engineering. Mechanical feedback controls include robot arms, thermostats, flight controls, guidance systems. They are definitely products of intelligence. Homeostatic controls–biological versions of such–regulate such items as body temperature, blood glucose, and blood pH.

To say that homeostatic controls have similarities to mechanical controls is a valid observation rooted in reality. If the latter is a product of intelligence, then a reasonable person can ascertain that the former are also likely such products (even if the conclusion cannot be proven empirically).

It is also possible to compare organisms that fly with man-made machines that fly. It is also possible to compare the structural stability of organisms with that of vehicles and machines. To suggest that there are parallels that indicate organisms are the result of design is rational (even if not empirical).

There are other bases for which to compare the natural and the mechanical, but the point is this: ID is a legitimate observation based on human engineering accomplishments over the milennia of our existence.

ID reflects a difference in the way scientists and engineers think. Scientists are duty-bound by the scientific method. They make observations, they form hypotheses, they test those hypotheses via experimentation, they refine their hypotheses as they analyze results.

Engineers, on the other hand, use what is known to create products that enhance the quality of our lives. They do not require the scientific method; they formulate a concept, build a prototype, test it, refine it, and–after gazillians of iterations–get a finished product. From the first wheel to the most advanced spacecraft, engineering has served us well.

And this is where I have a problem with the ID-evolution debate. On one hand, I find it easy to oppose the most vocal proponents of ID, which include many religious fundamentalists who would exclude evolution from discussion if they had their way. That the Dover folks sought to mandate the discussion of ID was as wrong as Judge Jones was for declaring the discussion unconstitutional.

The ACLU is so hung-up on the “separation of church and state” argument that they completely trampled on free speech.

As a result, the same ACLU that supports the rights of teachers to ask elementary school students if they are masturbating now supports prohibiting teachers from addressing the legitimate discussion of matters that have plagued our best thinkers for milennia.

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Free Inquiry

12/21/2005: The Left–ever the champion of academic freedom–now opposes free inquiry. Whodathunkit???

In yesterday’s federal court ruling, judge John E. Jones ruled against the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID), insisting that the very mention of the words “intelligent design” in the classroom is unconstitutional.

So here we go. Let’s say I’m a high school science teacher in one of the districts covered by yesterday’s ruling, and Jane Doe asks me, “Mr. SingleMind…do homeostatic controls–biological feedback control systems that are a staple of all organisms–constitute evidence of an intelligent designer?”

By law, I have to say “No.” After all, the court has ruled in place of science. Discussion of the rationality of her question–or even the very mention that her claim (in spite of having a rational basis) is beyond the scope of the scientific method–is now unconstitutional.

This is not about creation versus evolution versus “intelligent design” or even “not so intelligent design”. This is about the freedom to have a reasonable discussion in a classroom concerning a question that has plagued everyone from scientists to theologians to philosophers for milennia.

I do have one problem with the Dover, PA folks: they were wrong for mandating the mention of ID; they should have merely permitted its discussion, not mandated it.

With that said, the Left has now placed themselves in the same league with the most ardent book banners, witch-burners, and domineereing fundamentalists that they so rightly castigate.

The quality of public education–already suspect–has taken a great leap backward due to yesterday’s ruling.

I must wonder, though, if Judge Jones intentionally worded his ruling in order that SCOTUS would strike him down and pave the way for allowing ID to be discussed in classrooms. That remains a mystery.

Do You See What I See?

12/20/2005: In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Diva Gullipalli reports that credit card companies are raising their minimum payment requirements. (In most cases, it will rise to at least 1% of the balance, plus applicable fees). A staggering fact–reported in the middle of the article–is that, according to Cambridge Consumer Credit Index, the number of people making either minimum or no payment on credit card balances rose to 45% in 2004.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Robin Sidel reports on J.P. Morgan Chase’s efforts to expand its credit card business to include those with less than prime ratings.

Underneath that headline, Sidel hit on another interesting fact: J.P. Morgan Chase–which typically markets its credit card products to people with high credit ratings–is seeing the market for credit cards among prime customers get thin. Ergo, they seek to market to “low prime” customers (who have fair credit ratings, but not quite prime). That way, they can earn more profits by charging higher fees.

These two stories underscore an important fact about the shakiness of our economy: we are poised for the mother of all crashes, and our banks are selling us down the river.

Credit card companies bring home the bacon by “securitizing” credit card debt: bundling it with other debt in the same credit class, selling it to a special purpose vehicle, which in turn sells it to investors in the form of an investment product. Banks have done this for decades with mortgages, spurred on by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Remember: banks make money off debt. For you, debt is a liability. For a bank, debt is an asset. By selling you into debt, then selling that debt to investors, the bank makes money.

Here’s another tidbit that many people do not grasp: every time a bank makes a loan, the bank creates money on behalf of the party receiving the loan. This is why higher interest rates lead to a “tightening of the money supply” and lower interest rates lead to “dumping money into the economy”.

Here’s the problem: creating money is not the same thing as creating value. When parties default on their loans, the created money is worthless. That means you and I end up absorbing the cost in the form of higher prices–for capital, for food, for everything.

Now…back to our credit card dilemma. Profits for credit card companies are slimming up. Credit card companies are jacking up their minimum payment requirements. On top of that, banks that once provided consumer credit only to low-risk clients–J.P. Morgan Chase–are expanding to higher-risk clients to get more profits.

RED FLAG #1: When a company expands its business from a lower-risk model to a higher-risk one, the results can be catastrophic. Just ask any former Enron employee or stockholder.

RED FLAG #2: When banks have to expand their risk to get more profit–and the risk in the markets they seek to expand is already higher than Ozzy Ozbourne on a bad day–you have a debacle on the horizon. Remember the junk bond-induced S&L crash of the late 1980s?

On top of the credit card market, here’s another problem: we have another bubble that could kick us pretty badly. The real estate market.

When the stock market tanked in 2000-2002, many high-value stockholders took their money out of the stock market and invested in real estate. Along with Greenspan’s easy money interest rate policies, this helped set the stage for the largest real estate bubble in history.

RED FLAG #3: Newtonian physics applies to economic bubbles. What goes up must come down. The only question is at what velocity?

All three of these factors will impact the financial stability of the banking system.

Will it all end in doom-and-gloom? I hope not. Last time we had a scenario like that, unemployment would eventually reach 25%, and the GDP would fall by nearly half. The socio-political climate back then was far more favorable than that of today. A worst-case scenario would be catastrophic.

For starters, banks should make every effort to manage their risks more efficiently. They have a fiduciary duty to do this.

More importantly, Americans need to attack consumer debt like it is a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden.

Most importantly, we need to have a serious effort to provide financial education to Americans. While banks provide a legitimate business function–access to capital, mortgage products for real estate, insurance products for risk management, etc.–we must work to ensure that we do not enslave ourselves to them in the form of consumer credit.

Swaziland: Assessing Jabez, Part 2

12/20/2005: In my last posting, I provided a layman’s exposition on the Biblical prayer of Jabez. The purpose of that was to serve as my backdrop for assessing the failure of Bruce Wilkinson’s Swaziland orphanage project, which was based on his book The Prayer of Jabez.

Wilkinson’s book–a brief, easy-to-read book–became an instant best-seller. In fact, Jabez spawned other books (The Prayer of Jabez for Teens) and all manner of calendars, bracelets, and other trinkets. The Prayer of Jabez became the church-growth formula for many evangelical congregations, as many a pastor embraced the “enlarge my territory” part of Jabez’ prayer of I Chronicles 4:9-10.

That served as the backdrop from which Wilkinson launched his relief efforts in Swaziland. As much as I disagreed with Wilkinson’s book, I hoped he would succeed. After all, Swaziland is one of the poorest nations on earth, half the population of which is dying of AIDS while the other half fights off starvation.

Unfortunately, Wilkinson’s attempt to use a PTL-model only confirmed that The Prayer of Jabez was Pentecostal Word of Faith theology with a mainstream evangelical veneer. As Phillips points out in yesterday’s WSJ, Wilkinson’s plan for relief in Swaziland: start an evangelical megaplex that included a Bible college, a bed-and-breakfast, a game reserve, an industrial park, and an amusement park. The business model would rely on Christians spending $500 per night and yucking it up at the amusement park, or going to a Bible college in a remote portion of Africa, or going to game farms.

This all reminds me of Heritage USA. PTL. Sex scandals. Jerry Falwell mounting a hostile takeover with Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson providing tacit approval. Jerry Falwell taking the plunge off the slide.

A far cry from Matthew 28.

Granted, the PTL fiasco is nearly 20 years old (it all hit the fan in 1986). However, there are many key takeaways from those scandals, and they are not exclusive to Christian leaders.

(1) That a renowned preacher says something does not make it true.
(2) That something is popular among evangelicals does not make it Biblical.
(3) That a preacher has a large television following does not mean he speaks for God.
(4) If a preacher isn’t preaching the Gospel, then he isn’t much of a preacher.
(5) That a popular book gets highly touted in Christian book stores does not make it Christian.

I could go on. Here’s another key admonition: beware the fad culture within evangelicalism. About 10 years ago, it was WWJD. While that is a legitmate question–What Would Jesus Do?–that was rooted in a very fine Christian book (In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon), the whole evangelical world cashed in on WWJD: bracelets, t-shirts, bumper stickers, Bibles, calendars, etc.

I’m all for free markets (anyone who reads this blog knows that about me), but the Gospel is not about material prosperity, and shame on those who would turn God’s work into business enterprise.

AND THAT IS EXACTLY MY GRIPE WITH WILKINSON’S PTL PROJECT IN SWAZILAND!!!

Even if I had the money–and I don’t–I could not (in good conscience) spend the night in a $500-per-night suite knowing that most of the population within a ten mile radius is either dying of AIDS or starving! And if you could, then I question your Christianity! I could not–in good conscience–enjoy a day at an amusement park knowing that–not even 5 miles from where I stand–the citizens have nary a pot in which to piss.

I’d rather just send my money to people who are providing real relief in Swaziland. They don’t need me (or Wilkinson) wrecking their efforts.

Swaziland: Assessing Jabez, Part 1

12/20/2005: In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Michael Phillips provides a detailed account of the failure of Bruce Wilkinson’s orphanage project in Swaziland. Wilkinson–a prominent American preacher known for the fad book The Prayer of Jabez–calls the Swaziland debacle “one of the disappointments of my career.”

In fact, this failure–tragic as it is–represents a sad commentary on American evangelicalism. It also provides an opportunity to have an honest discussion about the fad of Jabez.

Assessing the Swaziland bust requires a revisitation of The Prayer of Jabez.

Jabez–an obscure character in Scripture–gains mention in I Chronicles 4:9-10, in the middle of a genealogy. He is noteworthy because more is said about him than for the others in the genealogy. We learn (1) he was more honorable than his brothers, (2) his birth was so tough on his mother that his name, Jabez, which literally means “pain”, is a reflection of those birth pains, and (3) he made a special request of God, which God–in turn–granted him.

Jabez’s prayer to God was fivefold: (1) that You would bless me indeed, (2) enlarge my territory, (3) that Your hand would be with me, (4) that You would keep me from evil, (5) that I might not cause pain.

Anyone who thinks Jabez was being selfish is forgetting the last part of his prayer: that I might not cause pain. This is a direct reference to his name: he did not wish for his legacy to be one that caused others pain. Jabez was honorable; he is one man who desired not to live up to his name!

That God gives Jabez so much attention in the middle of this genealogy is hardly trivial: while there are many other names in that genealogy, no one else in that genealogy has anything mentioned of his character. There is no record of any of the others crying out to God for anything. Jabez’ prayer is important against this backdrop: he is praying that his legacy be completely removed from the heritage of his name. Christians can learn from this to ask God to give them legacies completely removed from their worldly roots.

However, Wilkinson is pushing the limits of propriety by suggesting that everyone pray the prayer of Jabez every day. (He claims to have been praying it every day for thirty five years.) The Jabez prayer is hardly a formula for God’s blessing; after all, God’s blessing is not about formulas or pushing the right buttons or saying things the right way. God’s blessing is all about God’s goodness, and is not an entitlement. We should pray for God’s blessings, and we should pray that–by the grace of God–we may live lives that reflect God’s blessing. However, this is not about reciting two verses of Scripture every day. While God honored Jabez’s request, this is not the normative Biblical model for prayer.

The disciples–who had prayed in synagogue regularly since their childhoods–reached a point in their walk with Jesus that they realized they knew not the first thing about prayer. They asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. (That is Jabez-caliber humility.)

Jesus’ response was what we now call the Lord’s prayer. Not intended to be a “vain repetition”, Jesus’ prayer has only one thing in common with Jabez’ prayer: deliver us from evil.

Jesus’ prayer included proper relationship and reverence for God (Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name), acknowledgement of and prayer for God’s sovereign rule (Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, prayer for basic provisions (give us this day our daily bread), forgiveness and the grace to forgive others (forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors), protection from temptation and deliverance from evil (lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil), closing with further acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and glory (for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever, amen.)

The standard for prayer is the model Jesus gave to His disciples. Let us not forget that–in the midst of our obsession with Jabez’ prayer–Jabez’ complete spiritual life consisted of far more than a five-part prayer spanning one verse; in fact, his recorded prayer summarized the agonies and requests of a man whose life was devoted to God’s ways.

The starting point is humility: Jabez understood it. The disciples would need years before they truly grasped it. In Jabez’ case, God blessed him, gave him more territory, kept His hand on Jabez’ life, delivered him from evil, and gave him a legacy far removed from his name. The disciples? God only used them to turn the world upside down.

Devotion to God’s ways begins with knowing God. This requires a stout life of prayer and faith entrenched in obedience. Jesus’ model for prayer gives us the framework for a life from which will flow prayers like Jabez’, letters like Paul’s, and sermons like Stephen’s.

TWA 847 Killer released

12/20/2005: Mohammad Ali Hamadi–the hijacker who killed Navy diver Robert Stetham in the TWA 847 hijacking of 1985–has been released from prison in Germany. He served 19 years of a life sentence.

So where do death penalty opponents stand on this? He got a life sentence and only served 19 years.

Bush should demand that the Department of Justice work to extradite Hamadi and bring his sorry ass back here for trial.

Better yet, let him enjoy a luxury suite in Afghanistan, with the Navy SEALs taking good care of him. 😉

Federal Judge Rules Against Teaching “Intelligent Design”

12/20/2005: Regardless of what you think of Intelligent Design (ID), the premise of the State deciding what can–and cannot–be taught in schools is pretty revolting. When you leave your children’s educations to the whims of the teacher unions, the 9th Circus, and other courts, you are taking one heck of a risk. Today, Federal judge John E. Jones ruled against ID. He says it cannot even be mentioned in public schools.

If you want your kids to get an education, then you need to take the initiative.

If you insist on a public education for your kids but want them to learn ID, then it is incumbent on you teach it to them. You should also teach your kids how to think critically, not accepting things just because someone else told it to them. Don’t assume that the school system is going to do that.

If you want them to get a Christian education, then put your money where your mouth is: pull your kids out of public schools and either put them in private schools or homeschool them. If you have to move into a smaller house or sell one of the cars or take fewer vacations, then do it. This is a matter of priorities.

At any rate, quit trying to force change on the public school system. If you want that, then you need to work for the abolition of government schools.

As for me, government schools are the real problem here. Privatization would end this debate over the teaching of evolution in schools.

NYC Transit Workers Call Illegal Strike

12/20/2005: If Mayor Bloomberg has a pair, he’ll fire the transit workers. They are breaking the law; they are breaking the trust that they established with the city of New York.

In return for cashy, secure jobs, every transit worker agreed to a non-strike provision, just as the air traffic controllers had.

President Reagan rightly fired the striking ATCs. Bloomberg should tear a page from the Reagan playbook.

Civil servants have no business going on strike. If you don’t like that, then get another job.