Be Healed! Federally-Funded Miracles and other Such Nonsense

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Having assumed that the main contenders in this presidential election were President George W. Bush and John Kerry, little did I know that Oral Roberts had thrown his hat into the ring. Actually, the candidate in question was not the famous faith healer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, but rather the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate, John Edwards.

Edwards, during a stump speech in which he emphasized support for massive federal funding of "embryonic stem cell" (ESC) research, declared to the audience that in a Kerry presidency, they were going to push research that ultimately would cure a whole host of diseases and enable people with spinal cord injuries (he invoked the name of the late Christopher Reeves) to stand up and walk. (Yes, he really said that.) In fact, the blogger Matt Drudge, on his web page, had a picture of Edwards holding up his hand in an Oral Roberts-like pose, with the words underneath declaring: "Be healed!"

Before going further, let me emphasize that this is not a column about John Edwards or anyone else running for president. (For truth-in-advertising purposes, I am not voting either for the Republican or Democratic candidates this election.) In the past two presidential campaigns, I have endured candidates promising us better weather (Al Gore and John Kerry), a plan to rid the world of evildoers (George W. Bush) and prosperity through tax increases (Gore and Kerry). If it were not for the fact that these people are serious in their intentions, we could write off the entire exercise as farce.

No, this is a column that takes a hard look at these medical miracles that the government continues to promise through the magic of federal funding for research. Since the candidates in this latest election are promising more miracles, perhaps it is time that someone explains that there is no substitute for truth, and especially truth that debunks the latest nonsense that the political classes try to foist on the rest of us.

Something that historians hold as a "great success" but in reality set very bad precedent was the Manhattan Project of World War II. As most readers know, during World War II, the U.S. Government embarked on a secret (or, not-so-secret) campaign to build an atomic bomb, and assembled a huge number of scientists in places like Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop this new weapon of mass destruction. The project was "successful" in that bombs were developed, two being exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly before the Japanese agreed to stop fighting.

Whether or not one sees this as a "success" depends upon one’s view of that war and the events that occurred near its end. However, the project is held up by people as the way to achieve "scientific breakthroughs" in a short period of time. Likewise, the moon landing of 1969 supposedly vindicates the crash program at NASA during the 1960s after President John F. Kennedy declared early in the decade that the United States would produce a lunar landing.

Thus, we are left with the notion that if government provides enough funding for any scientific activity, then scientists flush with cash can produce miracles. The latest point of folly is so-called ESC research.

Because of ethical concerns (the human cell tissue used for ESC research generally comes from aborted fetuses, although many private researchers have been using adult stem cells instead), Bush has limited (but not completely blocked) federal funding for this area of research. Most of the research, however, comes from private firms and other organizations.

While I claim no expertise in stem cell research, from what I have read, there have been no great "breakthroughs" — and that is not because of limited federal funding. Indeed, even if the Bush Administration were giving the pro-ESC pressure groups everything that they were demanding (and that is not possible, given they want unlimited funding, which in this world of scarcity is not in the cards) we would not be any farther along than we are today.

Furthermore, while there have been some interesting laboratory results using mice, we have nothing to demonstrate that any of the miracle cures that the advocates are claiming will happen — when the feds open the spending pipelines. Indeed, as science writer Michael Fumento points out, the promising area of study — adult stem cells (ASC) — already has been aggressively pursued by private researchers.

Fumento has an interesting take on why the ESC advocates have been so noisy, and have been demanding government funding:

So why all the incredible pressure on the Bush administration to open the federal spigot for ESC experimentation?

It’s precisely because ASCs are superior, and private investors know it. Hence they plow their money into ASC research. Starved for funding, ESC researchers — who operated for years under the false belief that their path held more promise — may find their hopes dashed. They need to feed at the federal trough. So they’ve waged a high-profile disinformation campaign to exaggerate any possible ESC development, even as they pooh-pooh or ignore all ASC breakthroughs.

The media, convinced that the debate is between religious zealots on one side and scientists on the other, are crucial to the ploy. Time and again, astonishing ASC research is simply referred to as “stem cell,” whereas any potential advance with ESCs is carefully identified as such. Influential science journals such as Science and Nature have repeatedly published utterly nonsensical attacks on ASC research.

Thus Nature, in March of 2002, printed two lengthy letters regarding petri-dish studies claiming that stem cells might not be growing at all, but merely fusing together. It was akin to saying that people get in steel tubes in Los Angeles and end up a few hours later in New York, but there’s no evidence the tubes can actually fly.

Yet, the media gobbled it up. ” ‘Breakthrough’ in Adult Stem Cells Is Hype, Studies Warn,” headlined the Agence-Presse France news service. “New Research Tips Debate on Stem Cells,” insisted the Australian Associated Press. “Adult Cells Found Less Useful than Embryonic Ones,” claimed The Washington Post.

Many scientists are dismayed at such bias and ignorance. British researchers editorialized in the February 2003 Journal of Cell Science that “despite such irrefutable evidence of what is possible, a veritable chorus of detractors of adult-stem cell plasticity has emerged, some doubting its very existence, motivated perhaps by more than a little self-interest.”

And, as we already know from all of the AIDS research, political hype does matter when it comes to government funding of science. Moreover, those diseases that are seen as being "politically correct," i.e. breast cancer and complications from AIDS, are going to receive the lion’s share of funding. Writes Fumento:

Moral problems with ESCs aside, the money problems remain. The federal research funding pie is limited, and huge chunks already go to politically correct causes such as AIDS. And while the National Institutes of Health (NIH) certainly can distinguish between real science and hype, to the extent that the public and Congress (holder of NIH’s purse strings) are convinced that ASCs are worthless and ESCs have tremendous promise, money will flow to the ESC research.

There is yet another issue worth noting, that being the whole "crowding out" effect of government scientific research. It is obvious that private investors are going to look for the trends that are most likely to be successful. Indeed, if any stem cell research will be able to perform the hyped miracle cures, someone would make a lot of money healing the Christopher Reeveses and others who are suffering from debilitating illnesses and injuries, and there are investors out there willing to try to hit the home run.

However, when the federal government becomes the chief engine of funding and promotion — as has been the case with much of AIDS research — another phenomenon takes place: the bad science "crowds out" the good science. For example, Peter Duesberg of the University of California has been rather unpopular with the AIDS crowd because of his (and others’) contention that perhaps HIV is not the cause of AIDS.

(I am not taking sides in the HIV-AIDS debate, but rather pointing out that once the HIV theory was established and promoted by the U.S. Government in 1984, all other explanations were shunted to the side as scientists vied with each other for massive amounts of government money. Anyone who dared disagree with the HIV hypothesis was branded an "enemy of the people" and treated as such. Likewise, those who see ASC research as more promising than ESC studies are meeting the same fate.)

If Fumento is correct and government attempts to suppress ASC research, or at least marginalize it in favor of the less-successful ESC studies, we should not be surprised. The same government that tells us that all is well in Iraq or that the Transportation Security Administration is keeping U.S. airports safe will try to tell us that white is black when it comes to science. Those of us who have written on environmental subjects already know that government is the biggest promoter of junk science.

Furthermore, government’s excursions into public health often have been doomed, the latest flu vaccine debacle being a good case in point. In fact, as I pointed out earlier this year, the record of government dealings with flu epidemics is spotty at best and disastrous at worst.

So, just as we can discount Bush’s claims of U.S. successes in Iraq, we can laugh at the claim of Edwards and Kerry that they will become healers of the sick. If I have to choose between these politicians and Oral Roberts, I just might be more likely to pack my bags and head to Tulsa.

October 15, 2004

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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