Monday, February 02, 2009

Stem Meme

In the news today the possibility that President Obama may reverse his predecessor's ban on stem cell research. I considered writing a piece on the science behind stem cell research and the possibilities that would open up if and when the ban is removed. But another story caught my eye, that Geron, a biotech company in the US, has been given approval by the FDA to proceed with a clinical trial treating paralyzed patients with stem cells. What really stood out for me was that the proposal document was approximately 21,000 pages long. The BBC reports that this is the largest application on record.

Herein lies a challenge for scientific progress, as the boundaries of research stretch into ever more complex territory. I would contend that most of the controversies science is facing, in the fields of stem cell research, climate change, evolutionary biology and other, emerge because the topics are so complex that most contributors to the debate are barely able to scratch the surface of understanding. I could have written a short piece about the possible benefits of extensive stem cell research, but in order to summarize such a complicated subject, the facts necessarily become watered down.

Clearly scientific progress in the modern era relies on public support, which in turn requires that the public have some understanding of what they are supporting. But is this feasible? Obviously good communication between the science lab is key. When, though, is someone completing the arduous education required to practice stem cell biology expected to find the time to also become a master communicator?

Ultimately, with such a large public body to communicate to, memes become a vital tool. A meme is a package on knowledge in the same way that a gene is a package of genetic information. Memes are replicated when one person tells another, and like genes, they are subject to 'natural selection'. Successful memes become an ubiquitous part of our culture. For example, everyone knows that Neil Armstrong said "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as he set foot on the moon. This meme is successful because of the inspirational nature of the message, because the words are cleverly arranged, but simple and because of the way it has been communicated: that video clip of the man in a space suit, complete with the beeps and whistles of the comm system.

Memes, like genes, are also prone to random mutations. People make mistakes when they re-tell the story, or deliberately change the facts to make the story more appealing. The success of a meme has nothing to do with how true it is, only how well it is spread throughout a group of people, and eventually the entire population of a country of the world. Think of the show Mythbusters, who every week deal with successful memes that often turn out to have no basis in fact. Richard Dawkins, who coined the phrase 'meme', contends that religion is the most successful meme of all human history, and in his opinion, is completely false.

Back to stem cell research, how can the researchers control the stem cell memes that proliferate? Is there some way to selectively breed a meme that is not only robust and successful, but also true!? Unfortunately, sound scientific knowledge isn't easily transfected into a popular meme. Scientific fact is not usually catchy, universally inspirational or expressed accurately in a poetic form. We shall have to see how the population of memes changes now that the POTUS looks set to throw his support behind this valuable and interesting line of research.

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