Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Giving Helps the Giver

I listened to a terrific forum address at BYU by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. His intriguing thesis is this: people who give of their means to others end up receiving more than they give. In other words, being philanthropic leads to being more wealthy rather than vice versa. You can hear audio of the speech or you can watch the video. I can't provide a direct link to the video, but click here and then click "Conferences and Addresses" and then find the forum address from 2/24/2009.

He sets forth four myths that he rebuts during the presentation:
  1. Giving makes us poorer.
  2. People are naturally selfish.
  3. Giving is a luxury.
  4. Our nation can afford to substitute government for private giving.
As a Mormon, I particularly enjoyed his story about the "magic briefcase" near the end of his talk. He talks about a BYU briefcase he was given as a gift and the reactions from others and from himself when he--a Roman Catholic--carried it around when his regular briefcase broke.

On his website, he has a bunch of interesting statistics pulled from his book on this subject that you might find interesting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Moral Foil: Stem Cell and Torture

I recently posted one scientist's defense of the Bush administration's record on science. Will Saletan over at Slate just provided another very thought-provoking piece to the moral puzzle that surrounds one of the hottest scientific debates of the Bush presidency: embryonic stem cell research.

Though Saletan incorrectly describes President Obama's action as "lifting a ban" on stem cell research (the research wasn't banned; it was funded with severe limitations), he goes on to offer a word of caution to the proponents of embryonic stem cell research. He notes that they face a moral peril.

The best way to understand this peril is to look at an issue that has become the mirror image of the stem-cell fight. That issue is torture. On Jan. 22, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting interrogation methods used by the Bush administration to extract information from accused terrorists. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need," the president declared. "We are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard."

Did you catch the comparison? Apply that argument against torture to the stem cell debate. Ask yourself if your logic works when you switch topics using the same argument. It is a very probing question.

You don't have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don't—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

If you have trouble taking this question seriously—if you think it's just the hypersensitivity of fetus-lovers—try shifting the context from stem cells to torture. There, the question is: How much ruthless violence should we use to defeat ruthless violence? The paradox and the dilemma are easy to recognize. Creating and destroying embryos to save lives presents a similar, though not equal, dilemma.

Thanks for making me think, Will. That's why I keep coming back.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bush Science Record Defended by Liberal Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who describes himself as "left of liberal," takes some questions from the audience during an event while he talks about his book The Pluto Files. The questioner referred to the Bush administration as "the dark years" and asked for some comment from Dr. Tyson about President Obama's claim the he "is restoring science to its proper place in our society."

Dr. Tyson notes that the Bush administration was not "the black hole of science some said it was" and noted that science was treated with higher budgets during the Bush years--the only measure that matters in his view. He cited the example that the NASA budget was cut 25% during the Clinton administration and raised by 20% during the Bush administration.

This five minute clip is only part of a very entertaining presentation that is mostly about the planets and science. It is a fun watch for anybody who still has pride that they can name all the planets in order and cared when Pluto got the boot. If you want to watch the full ten-minute answer to this question (including the original question), go to the full version of this video and check out chapter 18.

UPDATE: The embedded video seems to be ignoring the internal place mark, so click the link above to see the segment in question.