Republicans Pray for Victory

It's just a few weeks until the U.S. presidential election, and while nothing is set in stone, Mitt Romney's hopes are looking increasingly dim. Despite the depressed economy, which would normally mean an easy win for the challenger, this election has taken a different course.


Romney's electoral math is daunting: with his support cratering among Latinos and other minorities and nonexistent among blacks, he would have to win an almost unprecedented level of support from white voters, even as their share of the population as a whole is decreasing. (Political strategists have suggested that this is the last presidential election that can even theoretically be won by appealing solely to whites.) The Democrats have a large lead among women as well, which makes it even harder for Romney to capture the supermajority of white voters he would need. While Obama was criticized for a lackluster performance in the first debate, that doesn't change any of these basic facts.

The polls have continually shown that Obama is at worst tied, and at best enjoying comfortable leads, in nearly every swing state. And despite having nigh-unlimited support from a handful of right-wing billionaires, Romney is even falling behind in the money race: whereas Obama has a large network of small donors who give over the internet, Romney is dependent on a smaller circle of deep-pocketed donors who expect to be wooed personally, which often takes him away from campaigning, to the point where he's scaling back and complaining about how much time it takes.

And try as they might to deny all this, I think some of these facts are creeping into conservatives' consciousness as well. It would explain this amusing story about some Mormons who've called for mass prayer and fasting to boost their nominee's presidential campaign. This doesn't strike me as the kind of thing you do when you're feeling good about your chances, especially when the article includes this immortal line:

Others in the email chain have suggested putting Romney's name on the "temple prayer roll," which is typically reserved for those who are sick.

Evangelical Christians have also gotten into the act: John Hagee (he who said the Holocaust was a divine plan) has called for "40 days of prayer" to influence the elction, while Pat Robertson and some others put together an "America for Jesus" rally (no, I'm not making that name up) on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Republic of Gilead has some firsthand reporting on what was said there, as does this post on Friendly Atheist, although this part from an AP article is probably my favorite:

And speaker Cindy Jacobs has blamed a mysterious Arkansas bird-kill last year on Obama's repeal of the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell," which allows gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

God is mad that we let gay people serve in the military, so... he's taking out his anger on birds? If that causal connection makes sense to you, you're probably an evangelical Christian. I can't wait for the religious right to explain that honeybee die-offs are due to the Obama administration no longer defending DOMA, and white-nose syndrome in bats is because of, I guess, the unprecedented number of gay and lesbian poltical candidates this year. No word yet on what's causing polar bears to drown, but I'm sure the religious right's dedicated gay-agenda-ologists will get back to us as soon as they've figured that out.

Robertson himself also favored us with this delicious nugget of self-delusion:

"I don't care what the ACLU says or any atheists say. This nation belongs to Jesus, and we're here today to reclaim his sovereignty," said Robertson, 82, who founded the Christian Coalition and Christian Broadcasting Network, and ran for president in 1988.

Got it, atheists? America belongs to Jesus! That's why the Constitution mentions Jesus by name in so many places.

Of course, if Obama is reelected, the Christian conservatives who brag that America "belongs to Jesus" won't take the logical step of concluding that Jesus must have wanted the Democrats to win. They know for a fact that Jesus votes Republican down the ticket, and therefore any electoral defeat must be due to the sinister forces of evil who are inexplicably capable of outsmarting the omnipotent god they're so certain is on their side. But hey, if they think prayer and fasting will improve their chances, I encourage them to do it. Pray all you want, guys! Spend every day from now till the election doing it. We atheists, meanwhile, will be making calls and knocking on doors. Let's see what's more useful.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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