The Long View 2005-03-15: Misguided Enterprises

John guessed in 2005 that California voters would eventually amend their state constitution to outlaw gay marriage, but at this point he didn't seem to think it especially likely the California Supreme Court, and eventually the United State Supreme Court would hold such amendments to violate the equal protection clause.

In 2005,  public opinion was against gay marriage, but the last twelve years have seen a large shift in public opinion in the US. [spreadsheet]

Gallup Poll Data on Gay Marriage

Gallup Poll Data on Gay Marriage

The two lines are different question sequences by Gallup. If the question about gay marriage was preceded by other questions on gay rights [I called that priming], then the number of people in favor when up. The rough trend seems to be about the same when the question was asked both ways, and the difference was only 2-5 percentage points, so that by itself isn't a huge factor, but it is a notable difference. Unfortunately, Gallup stopped bothering to do that.

Misguided Enterprises

As you know, yesterday a Superior Court judge in San Francisco held that marriage defined in heterosexual terms violates the constitution of the State of California. The decision began the weary process of appeals, which one suspects will result in an affirmation by the state Supreme Court of the Superior Court, along with the parallel campaign to amend the state constitution by popular referendum, which we know with a high level of certainty will override what the state courts say about the matter.

The interesting aspect to all this is that even this morning's New York Times reported the decision on page 16. This is one of those issues about which public discussion energizes the opposition. Why so? Because this is a fundamentally unpopular proposal that never found its euphemism. Abortion, for instance, was really part of a population-control strategy, but it developed a genuine popular following when it was presented as a privacy question. Gay marriage is about de-privileging heterosexuality. Essentially, the argument comes down to the assertion that the chief institution for regulating the relationship between the genders may not take account of gender. Since this use of equal-protection language is clearly insane, repeating it to a general public simply creates more opponents.

The sophisticated proponents of gay marriage have realized the difficulty. However, the activist network of proponents is engaged in self-expression rather than practical politics. There is no way to turn the network off. The progression to a federal constitutional definition of marriage in heterosexual terms now appears almost cybernetic.

* * *

Speaking of putting your brain on automatic pilot, there is an effort underway to ban an apparently successful clinical treatment for heart muscles because the preliminary lab work offends the biologists. This is another stem-cell story, but not of the sort to which we are accustomed. The stem cells come from the bone marrow of people who have suffered heart damage. According to yesterday's New York Times, fairly large clinical tests showed that these cells turned into heart muscle in the presence of damaged tissue. The patients were very sick, and the improvements were generally not spectacular. Still, almost all the patients improved some, and no one got sicker.

The problem is that the mouse studies that preceded the human trials have not been replicated, and not for lack of trying. The biologists want the FDA to pull the plug on further human tests; much less do they want the technique to become a standard treatment:

The Stanford researchers, who included Dr. Irving Weissman, a leading expert on the blood's stem cells, warned that until the science underlying the clinical trials was better understood, "these studies are premature and may in fact place a group of sick patients at risk."

I am reminded of what a French philosopher is supposed to have said: "Of course that works in practice, but does it work in theory?" I think we should also reflect that we would have heard glowing reports of these clinical trials, recalcitrant mice or no, if the stem cells had come from human embryos.

* * *

So is the moral that we should take a more libertarian approach to stem-cell research? If you think so, consider the state of things in Russia:

MOSCOW - While scientists worldwide are only studying stem cells, dozens of Russian clinics and beauty salons claim they are already using both adult and embryonic stem cells to treat everything from wrinkles to Parkinson's impotence.

These treatments seem to present more danger to the patients' bank accounts than to their health, possibly because the injections they receive sometimes contain nothing more bioactive than saline solution. As with so much else about Russian epidemiology these days, however, the real problem is that the public-health authorities don't know what is happening and don't have the resources to find out.

Thank God that, in America at least, Big Brother lives.

* * *

Here is a historical science story that almost certainly is not true, but which no fan of Alternative History could resist reporting:

BERLIN (AP) - Nazi Germany tested a crude nuclear device in March 1945, killing hundreds of people in a massive explosion in southeastern Germany, [German economist Rainer Karlsch] claims in a new book published Monday....The book cites postwar witness accounts and Soviet military intelligence reports to back up its theory of a March 3, 1945, experimental nuclear test blast at the Nazis' Ohrdruf military testing area, but it offers no direct documentary proof.

The device was supposed to have been a two-ton tactical weapon that felled trees at a distance of several hundred feet.

Nazi Germany had a small nuclear program we know a great deal about: famous names like Heisenberg were attached to it. They more or less abandoned the idea of a bomb because of the engineering uncertainties, and turned their attention to developing a reactor for the Navy. (Yes, Hitler's imaginary WMD threat was one of the reasons that Roosevelt decided on regime change rather than cold war.) On the other hand, Nazi Germany was also riddled with duplicative agencies and research projects, some of which were secret from each other. It is not impossible that Albert Speer might not have known about a modest SS nuclear project. Of course, most things that are not impossible are also not true, and I suspect that is the case with this report.

Here's the what-if: suppose that these tactical nukes had indeed existed, and been introduced into the war sometime in 1944. They would not have been decisive, or even particularly useful. In this, they would have been like the German missile weapons: had they done the worst they could have done, they still would not have been worth the effort. Indeed, the interesting point is that German tactical nukes might have closed down the American atomic-bomb effort. The huge expenditure for the Manhattan District project made sense only if the result would be decisive. If the American government were convinced that "atomic bomb" meant nothing more than a messier way to blow up tanks, they might have then decided that the matter was not worth pursuing.

* * *

Probably I should do this every posting, but once again, let me thank those of you who are buying products through this site, and donating money. As with your email, it's good to know you are out there.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site