Politician disses embryology; embryologists promptly win Nobel prize

October 8, 2012 • 12:46 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry beat me to posting the just announced Nobel winners, John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka (see here also), but I can’t help but note that the prize was awarded for work in embryology, Gurdon having done classic cytological (cell and nucleus) manipulation experiments 50 years ago, while Yamanaka has applied more recently available molecular tools to the same problem. Gurdon was able to place an adult nucleus inside a frog egg, and induce the egg to develop into a normal tadpole (showing that the adult nucleus retains all the information for normal embryonic development), while Yamanaka discovered the molecular signals in the egg that tell the nucleus to “start over”.

Congressman Paul Broun (R-Georgia), of course, has just become a media star (see here, here, and here for just a few examples; some background on Broun and his colleagues here) for denouncing embryology as a hellish lie. That Broun is an MD spewing such nonsense is made deliciously comic by the Nobel Prize for Medicine being awarded for work in embryology the day after Broun became infamous, but the tale becomes tragic when you realize he is a member of the House Science Committee. Andrew Sullivan‘s take:

Fundamentalism is not about being dumb; it is an act of will to over-ride reality with totalist faith, so that nothing is left unresolved and everything can be explained by a single text, or a single religious leader.

As Bill Nye told Huffpo:

Since the economic future of the United States depends on our tradition of technological innovation, Representative Broun’s views are not in the national interest… For example, the Earth is simply not 9,000 years old… He is, by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology.

h/t JonLynnHarvey

42 thoughts on “Politician disses embryology; embryologists promptly win Nobel prize

    1. Which decade of the 18th (or 19th) century did Franklin et al start weeping, metaphorically, and have they ever stopped?

  1. – How stupid is Broun?

    – Broun is so stupid he made 1st page as implied laughing matter in Swedish newspapers.

    – How stupid is Broun?

    – Broun is so stupid he thinks his mama’s mama’s … mama 9001 year back doesn’t exist.

  2. Allow me to extend the quote from Andrew Sullivan a bit:

    “Fundamentalism is not about being dumb; it is an act of will to over-ride reality with totalist faith, so that nothing is left unresolved and everything can be explained by a single text, or a single religious leader. It is, in some ways, a neurotic response by many educated, intelligent people to live their lives according to something that cannot admit uncertainty or doubt. It’s religion fused with the the totalist claims of modern political ideology.”

    “No doubt” is one of the core psychological phenomena of christian fundamentalism. While I’m sure that a large part of it is due to having an authoritarian type personality, and a very low tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty, it is also fed by bible verses such as James 1.5-8, one of the passages I heard the most often when I was in a fundamentalist church, and which was used to browbeat people into thinking they were spiritually inferior because they had doubts.

    Compare this to the freeing import of Carl Sagan: “The sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts” (The Demon-Haunted World, p. 220) and Richard Feynman: “Doubt and discussion are essential to progress” (The Meaning of it All, p. 50), or the analysis of Reinhold Neibuhr: “Extreme orthodoxy betrays by its very frenzy that the poison of skepticism has entered the soul of the church; for men insist most vehemently upon their certainties when their hold upon them has been shaken. Frantic orthodoxy is a method for obscuring doubt” (quoted in Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, pp. 122-123).

    1. James 1.5-8?
      I had to look it up, but it was worth it:

      “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

      1. Yeah, that’s it. Like every other sermon ever preached, a series of unsupported (and unsupportable) assertions. This one, of course, lends itself nicely to a good hard game of “blame the victim” (“you didn’t get what you prayed for? You must have been doubting; your faith isn’t strong enough” with the subtext “I’m better than you”).

        We ex-fundies (there are a number of us on this not-a-blog) know this stuff; if only I knew less of this and more biology…

    2. “The sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts”

      Isn’t that from William K. Clifford instead?

  3. My brain is too limited to understand this. I realise that medical studies are not necessarily particularly scientific. I tend to compare doctors to engineers, not scientists. Their domain is applied science, not fundamental science.

    That said, embryology is established science. It is hardly new. In its basic form, it isn’t rocket science either. All it takes is a scalpel and a magnifying glass, stuff anyone can buy (not the best quality, but still) in a dollar store. This is not exotic and inaccessible science (at least not the basics). It is pretty much accessible to anyone who is even remotely interested.

    It is also a basic course for anyone who studies medicine. So then, how is it possible that a medical doctor can honestly declare embryology to be a lie? What is the incentive for such obvious nonsense?

    And if this individual truly believes what he says, what does that tell us about the quality of medical programmes, taking into account he did not get his medical degree from a lunatic asylum such as Oral Robarts University or Liberty University?

    I just don’t get it.

    1. Two possible incentives for dissing embryology were posted on the previous post on WEIT about Braun. Another user suggested right-wing opposition to embryonic experimentation (a technology issue) and I suggested concern with the dictum that things that appeared early in evolutionary history (like backbones) appear in the embryo earlier than stuff that appeared later in evolution (like the cerebrum).

      But it’s actually anyone’s guess.

      1. There’s a good chance that there’s some contempt of Haeckel and his ontological recapitulation of phylogeny.

        Yes, yes. Haeckel’s work had serious problems. But those problems are favorite whipping boys of the Cretinists — and, of course, the Cretinists then use Haeckel to justify their dismissal of all the evolutionary lessons we’ve since learned from embryology.


        1. I suppose what Ben Goren said might shed light on it. They claim they reject all of evolution because of Haeckel’s drawing, to be consistent, assuming Broun cares, he must also reject all of embryology.

        2. This is almost certainly it. Comparative embryology is a well known kind of evidence for evolution and Broun was just tossing off something he didn’t buy grabbed more or less at random out of the bag of things that creationists object to. I don’t think we need to look for any kind of quirky objection to embryology as a non-evolutionary field akin to the (niche) objections of some few to, say, set theory.

          1. Broun’s reasoning is a straightforward, if demented, linking of embryology, abortion and murder. His position: The instant of conception immediately produces a functional, fully human person. Studies of those persons necessarily must include abortion, which is murder. Therefore embryologists are murderers, who are consigned to the pit of hell. See: http://www.godandscience.org/doctrine/scienceabortion.html and http://www.all.org/abac/ab020128.htm and http://www.abort73.com/abortion/medical_testimony/

  4. I’m not sure that Rep. Broun is capable of making decisions about his own heath care. And that’s with the great HC that the US House of Representatives Allows him.

  5. What is there to “doubt” about embryology? Egg meets sperm, cells divide and organize for 9 months, producing a baby. Where in this sequence does Rep. Broun take issue?

    1. Where in this sequence does Rep. Broun take issue?

      We are still wondering.

      Among other issues, scientists have left the stork out. There is no cabbage patch either.

        1. It’s not, “when and where,” that’s the interesting question; it’s “how.”

          You see, when Jesus wants Mommy and Daddy to love each other very much, Jesus grabs Cupid’s bow and loads it up with an arrow made from the Rod of Aaron. He then hands it to Bacchus, who thrusts it into the Stork’s —

          — erm, how ’bout pick up this discussion when the children leave the room, shall we…?



    2. One of the likely issues is, when does this mythical thing called the “soul” enter the embryo. It is of course impossible for this to happen at conception, because then the white-bearded Darwin-look-alike in the sky would be responsible for the 50-80% of conceived foetuses that spontaneously abort in the first few weeks after conception. And that would make limbo uncomfortably busy. It is equally logically impossible for the “soul” to enter the baby at birth, because otherwise religious gun-nuts would have no excuse for shooting anyone in the same city as a legal abortion clinic.Therefore, the non-existent soul must enter the foetus at some hellishly inconvenient time in development, so as to justify denying women reproductive self-control. There may be some relationship here to why I don’t have to take my toenail clippings (surely imbued with soul to at least the same density as the rest of my fleshly raiment is) to the morgue / crematorium / graveyard for appropriate burial.
      I don’t claim to understand this – I don’t have the porcupine rattles and eye-of-newt sandwiches that the religious have, so clearly it’s beyond me. But I bet that is where the problem is. This week.

    3. I suspect he does not take issue with embryology, but with comparative embryology as a line of evidence for evolution, per Ben’s comments above.

  6. How does a concerned citizen express his voice to have this moron removed from a congressional science committee? Who appoints these members? Can they be dismissed on the grounds of incompetence? What decisions do they make? Can anyone help?

    1. These committees are controlled by the majority party. It is conceivable that enough complaints could be voiced that the republicans would feel compelled by fear of losing some votes to remove the most egregiously moronic committee members, but not likely. The most direct and surest way to get these morons off of these committees is to vote the republicans out of their majority this coming election.

  7. Broun is running unopposed for re-election. This probably makes him more inclined than usual to spout this stuff, and there could be several reasons for that. Perhaps it is because there is no competing candidate to call him on it, or perhaps it is because he thinks that without his extremism he won’t get any attention among the real contests happening elsewhere.

  8. First Akin, now this guy. How many science denying loons are there on that committee? And how did they get there?

    1. Probably by saying “I want to be on the science committee” when the jobs for the boys are handed out?

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