Monthly Archives: December 2010

“Ark Park” Drivel in the WSJ

An op-ed by Wilfred M. McClay in the Wall Street Journal predictably favors a $37+ million dollar tax break offered by the state of Kentucky to developers of Answers in Genesis’ new idea, an amusement park built around a Noah’s Ark theme.

More seriously, civil libertarians’ are concerned that the park would involve an unconstitutional advancement of religion. But over the past two decades federal law has moved toward nondiscrimination against religious organizations. This began with the “charitable choice” provisions in Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform package, which sought to allow religious groups to receive government-funded social services. The trend continued with the Bush administration’s promotion of faith-based initiatives, which the Obama administration has extended in barely modified form. The constitutional argument therefore seems tired, supporting a form of discrimination that the government is abandoning in other quarters.

Should the promotion of tourism be subject to this kind of discrimination? The legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky has stated that he objects to the park receiving state funds because it “is about bringing the Bible to life.” But why is that different, legally speaking, from Disneyland bringing Pirates of the Caribbean to life? At what point did the planners of Ark Encounter go too far in their concerns for religious authenticity?

The point at which some of the jobs being “created” in this deal aren’t available generally to the citizens of Kentucky. AiG requires its employees to sign a statement of faith. The company that actually is building the park says that those applying for jobs but without “Biblical knowledge” can work there, in some jobs, you know, that involve spatulas or spades:

“There will be positions that will require Bible knowledge because…we have certain things in there that are requiring biblical knowledge,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean, though, if you don’t have that you can’t work over in the restaurant or some other part of the facility.”

Ark Encounter consultant Cary Summers.

Does anyone believe that scoring high on “Biblical knowledge” is going to be sufficient for those jobs outside the restaurant or “other parts” of the facility?

Yeah, now tell me about how Disney hiring sorted people by their “Biblical knowledge”, Wilfred… or don’t. Am I buying Wilfred’s analogy? I don’t think so.

Now, about that first quoted paragraph… I’m not seeing diminishing “discrimination” by the government in its relation to religious organizations. What I am seeing is a pattern of increasing privileges granted to religious organizations, funded by all citizens via the government. Nor are those instances in any way analogous to what is at issue now. Charitable choice concerned a religious entity’s ability to compete for federal funds in pursuit of providing public services. (Note the provision that no discrimination can be made concerning who the religious entity serves.) “Faith-based” initiatives similarly concern public good being delivered by a religious entity. Now set “Ark Encounter” next to those and play Sesame Street’s “One of these things is not like the other” game.

All in all, Wilfred, I’m afraid that your op-ed doesn’t rise above propaganda with excessive rotational momentum — that’s right, spin. You failed to address a major issue concerning employment practices. You mischaracterized the past and pulled a bait-and-switch on your readers. Is that really the best that you can do?

Perhaps so. But it is also possible that there is no way for Ark Encounter to bring the Bible to life without demeaning or cheapening the very things it is intending to exalt. In that sense, the theme park may challenge not the proper separation of church and state as much as the proper separation of faith and commerce. Still, America’s robust commitment to religious liberty means allowing the widest possible latitude to such undertakings—and allowing criticism of them to flourish as well. Let the deluge begin.

Giving the widest possible latitude to an endeavor is a nice phrasing. Accepting that necessary infrastructure projects won’t get funded or services being cut or state employees failing to get even cost-of-living raises because $37 million dollars has been sucked out of the state’s revenue goes a bit beyond “latitude”, though, doesn’t it? If Ark Encounter wants to buy 800 acres of land, get the zoning, build whatever the regulations say that they can get away with, and pay for it out of their own pocket, I’m not arguing with that. If they want to take public money to do it, though, they owe it to the public to not discriminate in their hiring practices or in how they operate the completed facility. There are legitimate questions there, especially given the statements of the Ark Encounter consultant on proposed employment procedures. Even if Wilfred acts as if that issue doesn’t exist.

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The Worms Turn… and a Patient Recovers

A CNN report describes a motivated ulcerative colitis patient arranging for his own experimental treatment. Experimenting on yourself is frowned upon, but that patient persevered and is doing better.

Meanwhile, the patient had gone on the internet and found an article in a medical journal by Dr. Joel Weinstock, chief of gastroenterology at Tufts University Medical School, which showed some ulcerative colitis patients found relief after ingesting the trichuris suis worm, a parasite that lives in the intestines of pigs.

The patient contacted Weinstock to ask him to treat him with worms, but Weinstock said no, since it wasn’t approved for general use by the Food and Drug Administration and could only be done experimentally.

I had contacted Dr. Weinstock myself back in 2004, and got the same answer. I did inquire about being included in experimental trials, and there was nothing planned for anytime soon, if I recall correctly. Within a month of that, I was in the hospital having my emergency colectomy, so it became a moot point for me.

Weinstock’s original experimental trials, going on memory, showed better rates of remission for Crohn’s disease than for ulcerative colitis. But the ulcerative colitis numbers were enough to motivate the patient of the article to action.

I had wondered about whether the Trichuris suis eggs might be available simply by ordering from a biological supply company, but a quick Google search does not show any such easy route. The patient instead decided to go ahead with using the human parasite Trichuris trichuria, traveling to Thailand to put himself within a population where T. trichuria infection is commonly endemic. He paid a doctor there to collect eggs from the stool of a young girl with a nematode infection. He had to figure out egg hygiene and worm husbandry on his own, a critical set of steps that no one else would comment upon, probably based on liability issues. (His doctor told him if he proceeded not to come back to his office.)

The travel and general grossness of the whole process was offset by the outcome, which was periods of complete remission. On flare-ups, the patient would re-culture a set of nematodes to start over again. The patient located a doctor who was willing to help document his health status in relation to his parasite load, and the result was a recently-published research paper on the topic, leading to the CNN story.

“He e-mailed me, and I ignored it,” Loke remembers. “I was very skeptical at first, but he convinced me to have lunch with him.”

At their meeting, the patient laid out his story in more detail, and Loke became fascinated.

“It’s an amazing story, and he’s quite possibly one of the smartest people I know,” he says.

Of course, there are different opinions.

Hanauer, chief of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the University of Chicago, warned against making too many conclusions from one man’s positive experience with worms.

“We don’t make medical recommendations based on a single case report,” he says.

He says New York University was “irresponsible” for putting out a press release about the study, and criticized media outlets such as CNN for reporting on it.

“It’s ridiculous and incredibly inappropriate,” he says. “You’re driving people to go on the internet and buy these worms, and these are potentially pathogenic organisms. These eggs can invade the systems of people who are immune suppressed and cause infections.”

I always thought the cool part of Weinstock’s original research was the use of the pig parasite, Trichuris suis, in humans. The species-specific relation of parasite and host was stated as meaning the pig parasite could not complete its life cycle in the human host. The parasite load could be controlled simply by varying the rate of ingestion. It seems to me that the public health issue of increasing the abundance of a human parasite in communities where it is usually absent is salient, and another point in favor of use of the pig nematodes instead. Perhaps instead of Thailand, the patient might have visited a veterinary conference for livestock vets. I’m happy that he is finding relief, but I don’t think that he has found a generally applicable approach to helminthic therapy for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. I hope that Dr. Weinstock, the original researcher, is able to continue with his research on the topic, given the various points in favor of his choice of helminthic agent.

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Health Care in the News

There was a piece on NPR about balancing the budget and how Medicare alone is 12% of the federal budget, or $500B dollars.

$500B dollars… that works out to about $16,000 dollars per US citizen per year. [I apparently entered an extra 0 plugging that into the calculator, which brings the calculated figure down to about $1,600 per citizen per year and makes this whole post a fine example of garbage-in-garbage-out. -- WRE] I figure the full cost of the pretty decent health insurance I have is less than $12,000 per year. I checked Wikipedia to see if I could get some figures for how much many the health industry goes through in a year. While I didn’t see that, I did see a sentence about how various people have noted that the summed amount the federal government pays in health programs could entirely fund needed health care for the whole population.

It seems like we could, if we worked together to fix it, provide a way to get health care to everyone without paying out any more than we do now. If the health providers in this country got $16,000 per citizen for each and every citizen every year and could plan on that, I don’t think that we’d have to have arguments about pre-existing conditions, age-based rate structures, and the like. I don’t think that quality of care would be diminished, either. In fact, stability in funding streams should improve quality of care.

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Here We Go Again… North Pole, This Time

Quark Expeditions is having another popularity contest for a blogger to go on a trip, this time the destination is the North Pole. And I’ve entered again and am seeking votes.

Yes, that didn’t work so well last time for the Antarctic trip, but I’m getting going sooner and the popularity contest isn’t absolute: a Quark Expeditions collection of staff will select the winner out of the top five vote-getters. So go have a look, vote for me if you are moved to do so, and maybe pass along the word.

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