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Hank discusses some of the taboos which have plagued scientific inquiry in the past and a few that still exist today.

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"grim fart.wav" by Walter_Odington
"Toilet Flush.wav" by tweeterdj
It's because  the Earth revolves around the Sun.  Natural Selection, it's how, like, species become new species.  I mean, it's okay to clone and genetically modify, like, crops and other animals, so why can't we do people?  Scientists should really take a better look at {beep over speech.}

What was, what was that? Did I like, did I say something I wasn't supposed to talk about?  Well, guess what, there's more where that came from, a lot more, and we haven't even mentioned the poop yet.  You might want to get used to that uncomfortable feeling, because today, we're talking about the taboos of science.

[intro music]

Now hopefully you know that societies have a lot of hang-ups, like how people look and how they act, and who they knock boots with, and it's mostly pretty stupid stuff.  But taboos are no joke, they're powerful things, and when it comes to science, taboos can keep all kinds of things from being studied, or even talked about.

Take for example the story of Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis.  In the 1840s Semmelweis had the audacity to suggest that doctors in maternity clinics should wash their hands before examining pregnant women and babies.  An act he, correctly, predicted would drastically reduce child bed fever mortality rates.

So how did his colleagues react to this advice?  Uh, not well.  His hypothesis, that doctors hands were somehow {sarcastically} carrying diseases around, and causing it in babies was ridicule.  The germ theory didn't exist at the time, and doctors were offended at the idea of having to wash their hands, possibly also offended at the idea that they'd previously been killing their patients.

So Semmelweis was fired from his hospital in Austria, and faced so much harassment from the medical community that he was forced to move back to Budapest.  After decades of anger and bitterness, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died in 1865.

Of course it would only be a few years before Louis Pasteur would come around, confirm Semmelweis's findings with his germ theory of disease, and Semmelweis is now remembered as a pioneer in antiseptic procedures.

The story of Dr. Semmelweis helps illustrate the power of a taboo, when social norms forbid a certain practice or way of thinking, and the risks that come along with challenging a taboo.  In fact, there is a name for our tendency to reject a piece of evidence or new theory when it contradicts social norms, and it's called the Semmelweis reflex.

So yeah, science taboos have existed pretty much forever, going back to Darwin and Galileo, and even the ancient Greeks. But what about today?

Here we run into a bit of a catch-22: by definition, scientists aren't willing to talk about taboos; sometimes just because they don't want to talk about it, sometimes out of a fear of losing their jobs or their tenure or their credibility.

But once you start looking, it's clear that almost every scientific discipline, from biology to medicine to astronomy to physics has their own subjects that they like to keep hush-hush. One person, uh, really the only person who speaks at length about scientific taboos these days is this guy named Dean Radin, at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which was founded to study consciousness and healing, missions that basically make the institute a taboo itself.

But no matter how crazy some of his scientific ideas are, his thoughts on taboos are actually pretty interesting.  He breaks them down into three categories: transitory taboos, stubborn taboos, and super double secret super taboos.

Transitory taboos being controversial topics that gradually become less controversial over time.  Science has had lots of transitory taboos; practices that are not only accepted today, they're practically mandatory, like: vaccinations, organ donations, blood transfusions.  At one time or another, all these things were considered either medically impossible or dangerous quackery.  

Today they've remained, scientific procedures that are controversial but are still done like: embryonic stem cell research or maybe even a better example, embryos that contain both human and animal cells: Chimeras.

Now the idea of fusing together different species is not cool with a lot of people, but it's done in labs around the world; transplanting human stem cells into prenatal nonhuman animals allows scientists to study human cell development without directly using human embryos.  So Chimeras have been created fusing human cells with rabbits and pigs have been created with human blood cells and yes, there are mice running around in labs right now that contain human brain cells.

Now let's start down this road, the conversation often turns to cloning which is where you enter into some serious stubborn taboo territory.  Since Dolly the sheep became the first mammal to be cloned in 1996 scientists have cloned: mice, dogs, cows, pigs, and the FDA has deemed that milk and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat and drink.  You'd think it was practically mainstream.

Now start talking about cloning humans, you're not just talking about breaking taboos you're probably also breaking laws.  Research into human cloning is illegal in many countries including: all of the European union, Australia, and Canada, and thirteen states - but not here in Montana.

AW YEAH!

So why the taboo? Well, there are lots of ethical and religious arguments, but it's the biological arguments that really make the topic off limits because cloning is hard, and it's dangerous.  Attempts at animal cloning produce many dead, deformed, and diseased animals, not to mention lots of embryos and fetuses that are lost.

Cloning pioneer Dr. James Robl has said that in addition to those dangers, and the low survival of offspring, you'd need a huge number of donor eggs and women willing to be surrogate mothers, which makes human cloning a really big problem.  As far as we know, a human clone is yet to be born, though not for lack of trying.

In 2009 a Greek biologist whose name I cannot pronounce [Panayiotis Zavos], claimed to have 14 human embryos and transferred 11 of them into four women.  He was either lying or the transfer failed, either way, it did not go over well in the biology community.

But really, human cloning, it's just so last season, as taboos go. If you're looking for a taboo for today's scientists, allow me to introduce you to synthetic biology, otherwise known as EXTREME GENETIC ENGINEERING!

This is an emerging technology in which genetic strains of organisms can be changed or created from scratch to allow the organisms to perform different functions, like new algae engineered to produce biofuels or bacteria altered to fight disease.

In March of 2012, a host of different advocacy organizations called for a moratorium [Synthetic Biology Moratorium] on the release and commercial use of these synthetic organisms and their product until regulations can be established.

The groups also called for a ban on manipulating the human genome or the genomes of the microbes that live in or on the human body, don't leave them out.

So far we've mainly talked about biology and genetics taboos, but what about taboos in other disciplines? Well in the field of mental health there's sex; especially anything other than heterosexual sex.

For instance, gender identity has become less of a taboo topic in recent years. But many psychiatric organizations still classify gender dysphoria as a mental illness. So should, for instance, a child who doesn't identify with their physical sex be given drugs to delay the onset of puberty, giving them more chance to decide if they want a sex change?

And then there's the question of whether sexual orientation is partially decided by your genetic code, or perhaps, more taboo question, should we even be looking for these things?

Well at least one study of gay brothers, by geneticist Dean Hammer, claimed to find the linkage between DNA markers on the X chromosome and male sexual orientation.

In physics, you could argue it is taboo to contradict Einstein. Look what happened when CERN physicists appeared to have clocked neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, which is of course impossible under Einstein's theory of special relativity.

When the news got out that the scientists had made a mistake, which they pretty much already knew, the media went nuts with headlines like "EINSTEIN VINDICATED!" and "EINSTEIN OWNS CERN PHYSICISTS FROM THE GRAVE!"

As for archaeology, it's practically off limits as an entire discipline in some cultures. In Israel, for instance, some ultra orthodox groups regularly protest archaeological digs because they consider it sacrilegious to disturb human remains. 

Now finally there are the supposedly double secret super taboos according to Dean Radin. Here he includes things like spirituality and consciousness, or what he calls psychic phenomena.

Now as far as I'm concerned, these topics don't have much to do with science, so I see them more as irrelevant rather than taboo.

But maybe the most dangerous, secret taboo in science today is what Radin and others have identified as the Poo Taboo. Now this is an important public health topic that not enough people want to talk about and address because it has to do with poop and that makes people uncomfortable.

There are over seven billion people on Earth, and only about 1.5 billion of those people use flush toilets that are connected to sewage systems, and that's just not right.

Human waste is a major breeding ground for pathogens and parasites that end up contaminating ground and surface water supplies if it's not disposed of properly.

And when it's not, you end up with a global sanitation crisis. Unfortunately, what has been dubbed the "psychology of excrement" often prevents solutions from being discussed on local, national, or global levels.

It's proved to be such a frustrating taboo that some scientific and humanitarian groups have challenged it head on, namely with "World Toilet Day," which celebrated its 10th anniversary last November.

It's basically a day to heighten awareness about a topic that people don't like to discuss and raise money for sanitation champions like nonprofits that help with public health needs around the world.

So I say we take a page from the toilet day playbook and pull some scientific taboos out of the closet. We're all adults here, right?

Well what do you think? I will say that as we were doing this episode, we had to, like, not include a bunch of stuff because it was way too taboo to talk about in a youtube video, which is crazy because it's a youtube video, right?

But, I'm curious what taboos you think we should have talked about, uh, you can leave those down in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter, also questions or ideas for other episodes for other episodes on SciShow. We'll see you later.

[end music]