These days, few things are as commonplace in the landscape of scientific research than the perpetual yowl of opposition. Despite the fact that huge announcements in the sciences often aren’t, off the bat, that thrilling (“two galaxies a million light years away collided and we aren’t sure where the mass went!”), there still always seems to be someone that’s up in arms. Most of the time, it’s the usual suspects — Baptists, the Bush administration, pro-lifers, and school boards in the midwest — people whose interests are threatened, ideologically, by the potential of specific knowledge. However, the numbers are growing, and researchers are more often having to defend their work against growing murmurs of antagonism. There’s even an Oxford-based organization, Pro-Test, that marshals researchers and scientists into the streets to protest their right to do biological research. Not to mention the fact that science funding is at an all-time low.
Scientists protesting being protested? This is getting complicated, and probably because the issues scientists tend to be dealing with these days are more complex, relevant, and rife with implications than we’re used to.
The thing is, Science has been around since Greek-guys-in-sheets times, and there just isn’t that much “safe” research to be done. Centuries of experimental trial and error have gotten the rudimentary ideas out of the way, and now we’re launched headlong into the big-picture stuff. Front-page science news is more and more mind-blowing, because it concerns the kinds of ideas that freak us out to the core: embryonic stem-cell research, evolution, our effect on the planet’s climate, the beginnings and ends of the Universe. Hence, the roar of pundits grows larger, and more vitriolic. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, in a recent posting on their website concerning the deriving of totipotent stem cells from 8-celled human embryos (a process that doesn’t harm the embryo) espoused that “today’s scientists must move forward on a solid ethical footing or they risk falling into the same pit that doomed many of Nazi Germany’s scientists to a legacy of disgust and moral outrage.”
More surprising, however, is objection from leftist groups. I was recently struck by the thundering of dissent against the work of Dr. Charles Roselli, a biologist at the Oregon Health Sciences University, OHSU. Dr. Roselli, who works primarily with sheep, is the author of a series of papers about sexual orientation in rams — the so-called “gay sheep” — which suggest that sexual orientation is hard-wired in the animals’ brains before birth. Provocative stuff, to be sure, since it may mean that homosexuality is definitely biologically programmed, part and parcel of the natural world, and, therefore, that the rights of homosexual humans should be beyond contention. Duh, I know.
It’s unsurprising that Dr. Roselli’s work would come under fire; what is surprising, however, is by whom. Of all organizations imaginable, the radically leftist People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA, infamous recently for their amazingly tasteless Beyonce Knowles coup, in which they verbally attacked the pop singer in a restaurant for her fur-oriented fashion choices) have taken the OHSU research as a misguided call to arms.
PETA, in a trenchant attempt to stop Roselli’s work, posted a petition on its youth-oriented website, claiming that “these experimenters believe that homosexuality is a defect that needs to be fixed, and they’re cutting open and killing gay sheep to do it.” Meanwhile, Roselli has repeatedly told the media that his work is completely neutral, that he’s trying to understand the biological impetus behind complex behavior, and, according to an interview with the Seattle Times, that he isn’t even a “nature-versus-nurture kind of dichotomist.”
Why would PETA target this kind of research? After all, Roselli and his team deal with a grand total of 16 sheep in their lab, while American meat-packing companies plow through over 4,000,000 yearly — and no one learns anything from those, other than that they might taste good with a little mint sauce and some potatoes. Of course, a great deal of animal research is morally dubious and, frankly, unnecessary, but the work of these OHSU researchers — and many others throughout the country — is in a completely different league: no one’s putting shampoo in puppies’ eyes here.
Don’t get me wrong, I love our animal brothers, but that doesn’t necessitate a blind adherence to any and all political group which claims to represent them. It seems that PETA has cherry-picked the OHSU team and manipulated its hot-button modus operandi in order to turn people away from any kind of biological research involving animals, a politically-biased strategy that wouldn’t be out of order among Intelligent Designists and those who deny the increasingly obvious presence of climate change. As if we needed another anti-Science group in this country!
PETA’s rhetoric is questionable; the petition on their site ends with “I am sure that you want your university to be known for making real medical advancements that actually benefit humans, not for torturing animals and promoting homophobia.” It is also sensationalist, borderline silly, and frighteningly similar to the language that the Southern Baptists’ Convention uses to criticize stem-cell research. Alls I’m saying is, language is dangerous, but not as dangerous as extremism.