Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Marketing False Hope

It is difficult to imagine anything as high on the irony meter as hearing somebody like Rush Limbaugh – somebody who traffics in a type of religion that traffics in prayer-based solutions and the power of faith, and who proclaims the wonders of the Bush Administration - accusing Michael J. Fox of promoting false hope, and treating Fox’s ‘false hope’ as a moral wrong worthy of condemnation.

Limbaugh’s brand of religion and politics is nothing short of an industry of false hope: hope that one will not die but will live forever, hope that after death one will go to a place where they can be reunited with their loved ones, hope for cosmic justice within which wrongdoers cannot escape punishment and the noble sacrifices in this world will be rewarded, hope for a miracle if one just prays hard enough, hope for divine protection from the evils of the world if one can only get prayer back in the schools and make Christianity instituted as the official state religion. All of this is yours for the low, low price of turning off abandoning critical thought and reason.

In the battle between Rush Limbaugh and Michael J. Fox, one of Limbaugh's articles of condemnation was that Fox was promoting false hope that stem cell research can instantly lead to cures for a wide range of diseases from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's, to spinal cord injuries. Yet, scientists admit that that cures are years away, and may not even come at all. It is wrong, according to Limbaugh, for Fox to be marketing this “false hope”.

In Defense of Michael J. Fox

First, I want to make some statements defending Fox against Limbaugh's accusations. Then I will turn my attention to attacking Limbaugh's claims.

First, Limbaugh offered no evidence to back up his accusations. I have not followed Fox around listening to every public statement he has made. However, the statements that I have heard have not included any false claims about stem cell research. If, for example, with federal funding of embryonic stem cell research we can have a treatment in 10 years, it is not an example of generating "false hope" to claim to go for that 1 percent chance. There is no lie in saying that 1 percent is better than 0.1 percent.

Second, let us assume that if we start funding the research now - and it takes 20 years to develop a cure. If we start now, then people living in 2026 will get the benefit. If we do not start now, then the people living from 2026 on will continue to suffer the harmful effects. It may be the case that Fox will never be able to benefit from any cures or treatments discovered through embryonic stem cell research - that those who benefit will be those in the future that Fox will never meet. This does not imply that his actions are a waste of time. Indeed, devoting one's life to providing a benefit to others is typically viewed as a noble undertaking.

Third, let us take a good look at exactly what Limbaugh has to claim to offer false hope. The claim has to be that, with all of the diseases that there are to treat, that stem cell research will be able to offer no benefit for any of them. It does not matter if embryonic stem cell research fails to provide benefits to the sufferers of Parkinson's Disease or Alzheimer's, if it can still offer a benefit to those who suffer from spinal cord injury, kidney failure, or to burn victims.

Furthermore, the benefit does not have to come directly from the use of embryonic stem cells to cure or treat a particular illness or injury. The sufferers of these diseases can also obtain a benefit indirectly - from the possibility that increased knowledge of how human embryonic stem cells work will provide the crucial insight to some other cure or treatment - one that actually does not involve stem cells. Limbaugh has to be operating on the assumption that none of these will work.

These are my arguments in defense of Michael J. Fox.

However, I also have a few claims to make against the likes of Rush Limbaugh and those who take his side on this issue.

Limbaugh's Hypocrisy of False Hope

Of these, the top of my list is the laughable absurdity of hearing somebody who has spoken so highly of prayer, divine intervention, and the need to return God to the classroom and the public square as a method of insuring domestic security, accusing somebody else of promoting false hope.

Not only has Rush Limbaugh promoted false hope of divine power, has he not also spoken in defense of the Bush Administration offer false hope of an easy victory in Iraq? Did they not give us false hope that our troops will be greeted as liberators, that the citizens of Iraq will immediately and cheerfully establish a free democratic government, that the American troops will be home in just a few months (except for the new military bases that we establish in that grateful, peaceful, America-loving country), and that the war will hardly cost us a dime, and might even bring in a profit?

There is no greater absurdity than hearing a person who condemns scientific research as offering false hope when there is no reason to rule out the possibility that the greater knowledge will produce benefits somewhere in the field of medicine, who also claims that human sacrifice to a God (and, indeed, it is the case that Limbaugh and those who think like him are sacrificing the likes of Michael J. Fox to please their God) is a reasonable alternative.

The Possibility of Benefit

The second criticism of Limbaugh takes off on the assumption that embryonic stem cell research can provide no benefit - direct or indirect - to the sufferers of any disease. When a person adopts an absurd belief in the absence of any evidence, it is reasonable to ask why he believes it. The explanation that will always top the list is that he believes it because he wants to believe it. Limbaugh's belief that proponents of embryonic stem cell research offer false hope comes from his sincere wish that the sufferers of these diseases and injuries can find no hope here. He wants it to be the case that this research is hopeless, and he is likely pleased by any findings that support his favorite conclusion.

At this point in the argument, an intellectually reckless individual (such as Limbaugh) will claim that the opponent who desires that embryonic stem cell research produce no benefit would go further and say that such a person wants those with this disease to suffer and die. Limbaugh and those like him make this type of leap when they argue that critics of Bush's war plans want America to fail in the war against terrorism. Lynn Cheney made this invalid leap when she endorsed a question asked of Wolf Blitzer regarding Iraq war coverage, "Do you want us to win?"

Since I strive for more intellectual integrity than those that I criticize I am not going to make such an inference. I will even warn against it - making sure that my readers know it is invalid. I am not saying that Limbaugh wants those afflicted with these illnesses and injuries to suffer and die. The evidence is that he wants them to find no hope in embryonic stem cell research. Because he wants this so badly, he sees no hope in this research, even though the odds that this research can produce will produce no benefit at all to anybody is vanishingly close to zero. He asserts what he wants to believe, not what is true in fact.

“Useless” Research

Third, let us assume that this research truly is worthless. The scientific community can gain nothing from the study of embryonic stem cells other than the advancement of pure science. Embryonic stem cell research is like studying galaxies 10 billion light years away - a type of research where it is quite reasonable to ask, "How can this possibly affect my life here on Earth?"

Still, there is value in pure research. There is value in simply knowing and understanding how the universe works, even to the point of understanding things we cannot change or put to practical use. The federal government is (rightfully) spending billions of dollars each year on research that offers no hope at all to those who suffer from Parkinson's Disease or any other injury or illness. Even if embryonic stem cell research fits in that category, and Limbaugh has certain knowledge that it fits in that category because his great, in depth understanding of medicine and biology gives him that certainty, this still is not reason to ban that research.

A Side Note on Dissent

While I am on this subject, I would also like to spend a moment on the claims some people make that are like, "I was paralyzed in an automobile accident five years ago. However, I have faith that this is part of God's plan and I am still opposed to embryonic stem cell research, even if it could repair my spine an make me able to walk again."

Okay, if you are opposed to any cures that may be provided through embryonic stem cell research, then you are perfectly free to refuse treatment. There are those who are opposed to blood transfusions for religious reasons. This does not give them a right to ban blood transfusions for those who do not share their (irrational and self-destructive) religious beliefs. Some religions do not allow their followers to eat pork - but they have no right to ban the selling of pork in stores.

In order to keep other people from obtaining a life-saving benefit - or even from the enjoyment like that one gets from eating pork, an individual has to come up with something a lot stronger than the fact that, "My religion does not allow me to take advantage of this, so I'm going to make sure that you can't benefit either." That steps over the line that bars people from imposing their religion on others.


beepbeepitsme said...

Rush is a cretinous piece of contaminated dingo stool. And that is my polite opinion.

Anonymous said...

Guy Barry,

You will become rich and famous and have a beautiful wife and you will live forever.

Now kindly put some money in that fancy plate I'm passing around, thanks.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

guy barry

I think that you asked an interesting question. I have puzzled about questions where it seems not only permissible, but rational, for people to have false hope. I'm going to see if I can fit a post on that subject in a couple of days.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It is an interesting story.

However, there are several caveats:

(1) I prefer to get my medical facts from peer-reviewed medical journals over newspapers. Newspaper articles tend to leave out important facts because the author really doesn't know what he is talking about.

(2) The article mentions that this woman is the first of 13 patients that showed significant signs of improvement.

(3) This is the only case that shows significant signs of improvement (meaning that there is a high risk of some alternative cause)

(4) Even though significant improvement was reported, 100% improvement was not improvement - so there is a chance that other options will work better.

(5) We do not yet know the long-range effects.

(6) One success treating one disease with adult stem cells does not imply 100% success of treating all disease with adult stem cells.

In short, it would be completely irrational, based on this report, to throw all other research away and focus exclusively on this one for all types of illnesses for which stem cells may offer treatment or cure.