You know the idea of separation of church and state?

I propose another principle: 

Let's keep the church and science separate.


The church is the antithesis of science. While science is at its heart all about facts, the church does not like facts, but rather is focused on feelings and beliefs. The church has truths, but of course truths are not facts. Truths are what each individual person feels is right.

We got a perfect example of why mixing religion and science is incompatible this week when the Vatican held its first every scientific meeting on stem cells. We learned earlier this year that the church had committed $1 million to a high risk stem cell biotech company as well. 

In the weeks leading up to the Vatican Stem Cell Meeting, I did several posts on my lab's stem cell blog about it including several puzzling aspects and what we might expect. You can read them herehere, here, here and here.

The Vatican Stem Cell Meeting was by invitation only and other than an idea coming out of the meeting for an official U.S. Adult Stem Cell Panel, not much in the way of press emerged from the meeting. We heard that the Pope re-iterated his opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Otherwise there was not much to be learned about what actually took place at the meeting. 

That is until today when an opinion piece authored by bioethicist Art Caplan popped up on MSNBC. Art had been an invited speaker at the meeting and as such was witness to all the goings on.

We are fortunate that Art was present and could give his take on the meeting. One thing Art said is that some good science was presented, which I believe.

However, Art also mentioned that there were some troubling aspects to the Vatican meeting:

the Vatican’s earnest desire to offer hope without compromising a core moral stance led to way too much enthusiasm about the prospects for current research in adult stem cell research.

This over-exuberance about adult stem cell research is pervasive in the U.S. as well, particularly amongst opponents of embryonic stem cell research. It is almost as though they believe that by grossly exaggerating the benefits of adult stem cell research, they hurt embryonic stem cell research.

Art went on to be even more blunt: the Vatican is far too enamored of every claim of cure involving non-embryonic stem cells. 

Art sums up his perspective: My own view is that the Vatican still has a ways to go in distinguishing sound science from hype and insisting on good science as the basis for what the church wants to promote as moral.

In my opinion religion is all about ways that we as individuals wish the universe worked.  For example, I wish I wasn't ever going to die (or at least could live more than a 100 years) and I wish I had never had cancer, etc. etc. 

In contrast, science is all about the way the universe actually works. Science is reality-based....or at least should be.

The problem with the Vatican stem effort and its other adventures in science is that they are not reality-based. They always fall into the trap of trying to make science conform to their own narrow religious beliefs.  In that way of thinking, bad science that supports a subjectively "good" religious ideal is better than good science that goes against a religious ideal.

As much as the opponents of embryonic stem cells wish it not to be so, there are factual, data-based reasons for pursuing embryonic stem cell research. In other words, good science supports both adult and embryonic stem cell research.

But if you are against embryonic stem cells at a moral level, the quality of science comes second, right? And for you, wouldn't it be convenient if adult stem cells could do everything that embryonic stem cells could do, perhaps even better? 

Well, yeah, I suppose, but that's not reality.  

I wish the Easter Bunny was real, but it isn't....right?

So when the church gets involved in science, whether it is stem cells or astrophysics, inevitably it weakens science because it always puts ideology over data.