Plastic Words are Hollow Shells for Rigid Ideas: The Ever-Expanding Language of Tyranny

Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of “plastic words“. What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book “Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur” (literal translation into English: “Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship“) in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen’s use of “plastic” refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen’s key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.



Here are some examples of “plastic words”(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:

exchange (Austausch)

information (Information)

communication (Kommunikation)

process (Prozess)

resource (Ressource)

strategy (Strategie)

structure (Struktur)

relationship (Beziehung)

substance (Substanz)

progress (Fortschritt)

model (Modell)

development (Entwicklung)

value (Wert)

system (System)

function (Funktion)

growth (Wachstum)

supply (Versorgung)

quality (Qualität)

welfare (Wohlfahrt)

planning (Planung)

Even though these words are very difficult to pin down in terms of their actual meaning, they are used with a sense of authority that mandates their acceptance and necessity. They are abstract expressions that imply the need for expertise to understand and implement their connotation. Their implicit authority dissuades us from questioning the appropriateness of their usage and displaces more precise or meaningful synonyms. They have a modular lego-like nature so that they can be strung together with each other or with additional words to expand their authority; for example, “resource development“, “information society“, “strategic relationship” or “communication process“.

How about the word “love”? Love is also very difficult to define but when we use it, we are quite aware of the fact that it carries many different nuances. We tend to ask questions such as “What kind of love? Erotic, parental, romantic, spiritual? Who is in love and is it truly love?” On the other hand, when we hear “resource development’, we may just nod our heads in agreement. Of course resources need to be developed!


Pörksen published his book during the pre-internet, Cold War era and there have been new families of plastic words that could perhaps be added to the list in the 21st century. For one, there is the jargon of Silicon Valley that used by proponents of internet-centrism. Words such as digital, cyber, internet, online, data or web have entered everyday language but we rarely think about their actual meaning. The word internet, for example, technically refers to a bunch of servers and input devices and screen connected by cables and routers but it has taken on a much broader cultural and societal significance. An expression such as internet economy should elicit the important question of who is part of the “internet economy” and who is left out? The elderly and the poor have limited access to the internet in many countries of the world but we may gloss over this fact when we speak of the internet. The words innovation, integration, global and security/safety have also become key plastic words in the 21st century.

How do these plastic words become vehicles for the imposition of rigid views and tyranny? Two recent examples exemplify this danger.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May justified Britain’s decision to leave the European Union after a campaign characterized by anti-immigrant prejudice and nationalism in a speech by invoking Britain’s new global role:

I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.

It is difficult to argue with the positive connotation of a Global Britain. Global evokes images of the whole planet Earth, and why shouldn’t Britain forge new relationships with all the people and countries on our planet? However, the nationalist and racist sentiments that prompted the vote to leave the European Union surely did not mean that Britain would welcome people from all over the globe. In fact, the plastic words global and relationships allow the British government to arbitrarily define the precise nature of these relationships, likely focused on maximizing trade and profits for British corporations while ignoring the poorer nations of our globe.

Similarly, an executive order issued by the new American president Donald Trump within a week of his inauguration banned the entry of all foreigners heralding from a selected list of Muslim-majority countries into the USA citing concerns about security, safety and welfare of the American people. As with many plastic words, achieving security, safety and welfare sound like important and laudable goals but they also allow the US government to arbitrarily define what exactly constitutes security, safety and welfare of the American people. One of the leading enforcement agencies of the totalitarian East German state was the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – Ministry for State Security). It allowed the East German government to arrest and imprison any citizen deemed to threaten the state’s security – as defined by the Stasi.

How do we respond to the expanding use of plastic words? We should be aware of the danger inherent in using these words because they allow people in power – corporations, authorities or government agencies – to define their meanings. When we hear plastic words, we need to ask about the context of how and why they are used, and replace them with more precise synonyms. Resist the tyranny of plastic words by asking critical questions.


Pörksen, U. (1988). Plastikwörter: die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur. Klett-Cotta.

English translation:

Poerksen, U. (1995). Plastic words: The tyranny of a modular language. Penn State Press.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


Empathy, Connectedness and Responsibility: German Academics Discuss the Refugee Crisis

Nearly half a million applications for asylum submitted by refugees were processed by German authorities in 2015, according to the German Federal Office for Refugees and Migration. The number of people who were officially registered in Germany as potential asylum seekers was even far higher-roughly one million in 2015 – which suggests that Germany anticipates an even higher number of official asylum applications for 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel has defied many critics even in her own party and cabinet by emphasizing that Germany can and will take on more refugees, most of whom are coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We can do it!” (“Wir schaffen das!”) was the phrase she used in September of 2015 to convey her optimism and determination in the face of ever-growing numbers of refugees and the gradual rise of support for far right extremist demonstrations and violent attacks by far right extremists on refugees centers in Germany.

Refugees welcome

The German media and right wing populists are currently obsessing about statistics such as the fact that the far right and libertarian party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) will garner 10% of the popular vote or that the vast majority of the refugees are male and could lead to a demographic gender shift if they remain in Germany. While such statistics serve as an important barometer of the political climate in the German electorate or to prepare for the challenges faced by the refugees and German society in the next years, they do not address the fundamental philosophical questions raised by this refugee crisis. In the latest issue of the popular German philosophy periodical “Philosophie Magazin“, the editors asked philosophers and other academic scholars to weigh in on some of the key issues and challenges in the face of this crisis.

Should we be motivated by a sense of global responsibility when we are confronted with the terrible suffering experienced by refugees whose homes have been destroyed? The sociologist Hartmut Rosa at the University of Jena responds to this question by suggesting that we should focus on Verbundenheit (“connectedness”) instead of Verantwortung (“responsibility”).  Demanding that those of us who lead privileged lives of safety and reasonable material comfort should feel individually responsible for the suffering of others can lead to a sense of moral exhaustion. Are we responsible for the suffering of millions of people in Syria and East Africa? Are we responsible for the extinction of species as a consequence of climate change? Instead of atomizing – and thus perhaps even rendering irrelevant – the abstract concept of individual responsibility, we should become aware of how we are all connected.

We are connected with the children of Syria and Somalia by virtue of the fact that they are fellow humans who deserve to live, learn and love. We are connected to the species facing extinction by climate change because we share the ecosystems of this planet and our species may also face extinction. For Rosa, the sense of connectedness is what motivates us to help the refugees without trying to precisely determine our relative global responsibility.

Are rational thoughts or emotions a better guide for how to respond to the refugee crisis? The philosopher Volker Gerhardt from the Humboldt University of Berlin emphasizes the importance of balancing rational and emotional responses. Rationally calculating the economic cost of taking on refugees and the benefit of increasing the younger workforce once the refugees are granted permission to settle and work in Germany does not do justice to the issues. Gerhardt is aware of his own background as the child of a refugee mother after World War II who were both cared for by their relatives. Every time he sees a photo of a refugee child, it evokes memories of his own past and serves as a motivation to help. But he is also aware of the limits of such emotional and rational willingness to help. Currently, hundreds of thousands of German citizens are volunteering to help and welcome the refugees by donating their time, money and other essentials but the German government needs to realize that this spirit of charity may become exhausted if the influx of refugees is not restricted. Hilde Landweer is a philosopher at the Free University of Berlin who studies the philosophy of emotions. She explains the underlying mechanisms which allow us to feel empathy for refugees. According to Landweer, there are three components which allow to feel empathy: 1) we have to feel a sense of similarity towards the other person, 2) we have to be able “experience” their situation and 3) we have to realize that one day, we might be able to also find ourselves in such a situation. Germany’s leadership role in its willingness to help the refugees when compared to other developed countries – Britain is planning on taking in 5,000 Syrian refugees per year, the USA only 1,000 to 1,500 – may be rooted in the fact that Germans can identify with the plight of the Syrian refugees. Millions of Germans experienced expulsion and forced resettlement from their homelands after World War II when post-war Germany was carved up. Landweer believes that empathy can be nurtured by meeting refugees and hearing about their personal narratives. But empathy needs to be more than shared pain, it needs to also include looking forward to how one can restore security and joy. This positive vision is what ultimately motivates us to help.

Does Germany have a unique historic responsibility when responding to the refugee crisis? Aleida Assmann is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of Konstanz who studies collective memory and its impact on German culture. Assmann refers to the Erinnerungskultur – the culture of remembrance – in Germany. Contemporary Germans are aware of the fact that their ancestors either actively participated or passively ignored the mass murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies and other ethnicities. According to Assmann, this historic responsibility is sometime summarized as “Auschwitz should never occur again!” but she takes a broader view of this responsibility. The root of Auschwitz was the labeling of fellow humans as fremd – foreign, alien or “other” – which did not deserve respect, empathy and help. Our historic responsibility requires that we avoid the trap of viewing refugees as fremd and instead encounter them with a sense of fellowship. The inherited burden of the Nazi past becomes an opportunity for Germany to define its future: Do we want to become a society that closes its doors to fellow humans in despair or do we want to welcome them in order to build a future society characterized by caring and sharing.

These are just some of the responses given by the philosophers in the Philosophie Magazin issue but they filled me with hope. As a German living in the USA, I often fall into the trap of reading clickbait and sensationalist news articles about the refugee crisis such as the rise of crimes committed by both right wing extremists and refugees in Germany, the imagery of refugees “flooding” German cities and the political gossip about Merkel’s future. But thinking more deeply about the core issues reminds us that what is at stake in Germany is our humanity. Yes, it will be challenging to integrate millions of refugees and provide them with a new Heimat – homeland – but our history and culture compels us to act in a humane fashion and not ignore the plight of fellow human beings.




Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

The Dire State of Science in the Muslim World

Universities and the scientific infrastructures in Muslim-majority countries need to undergo radical reforms if they want to avoid falling by the wayside in a world characterized by major scientific and technological innovations. This is the conclusion reached by Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama in their recent commentary “Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world“, published in the scientific journal Nature. The physics and astronomy professor Guessoum (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) and Osama, who is the founder of the Muslim World Science Initiative, use the commentary to summarize the key findings of the report “Science at Universities of the Muslim World” (PDF), which was released in October 2015 by a task force of policymakers, academic vice-chancellors, deans, professors and science communicators. This report is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the state of scientific education and research in the 57 countries with a Muslim-majority population, which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Map of Saudi Arabia in electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)
Map of Saudi Arabia using electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)

Here are some of the key findings:

1.    Lower scientific productivity in the Muslim world: The 57 Muslim-majority countries constitute 25% of the world’s population, yet they only generate 6% of the world’s scientific publications and 1.6% of the world’s patents.

2.    Lower scientific impact of papers published in the OIC countries: Not only are Muslim-majority countries severely under-represented in terms of the numbers of publications, the papers which do get published are cited far less than the papers stemming from non-Muslim countries. One illustrative example is that of Iran and Switzerland. In the 2014 SCImago ranking of publications by country, Iran was the highest-ranked Muslim-majority country with nearly 40,000 publications, just slightly ahead of Switzerland with 38,000 publications – even though Iran’s population of 77 million is nearly ten times larger than that of Switzerland. However, the average Swiss publication was more than twice as likely to garner a citation by scientific colleagues than an Iranian publication, thus indicating that the actual scientific impact of research in Switzerland was far greater than that of Iran.

To correct for economic differences between countries that may account for the quality or impact of the scientific work, the analysis also compared selected OIC countries to matched non-Muslim countries with similar per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) values (PDF). The per capita GDP in 2010 was $10,136 for Turkey, $8,754 for Malaysia and only $7,390 for South Africa. However, South Africa still outperformed both Turkey and Malaysia in terms of average citations per scientific paper in the years 2006-2015 (Turkey: 5.6; Malaysia: 5.0; South Africa: 9.7).

3.    Muslim-majority countries make minimal investments in research and development: The world average for investing in research and development is roughly 1.8% of the GDP. Advanced developed countries invest up to 2-3 percent of their GDP, whereas the average for the OIC countries is only 0.5%, less than a third of the world average! One could perhaps understand why poverty-stricken Muslim countries such as Pakistan do not have the funds to invest in research because their more immediate concerns are to provide basic necessities to the population. However, one of the most dismaying findings of the report is the dismally low rate of research investments made by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, the economic union of six oil-rich gulf countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar with a mean per capita GDP of over $30,000 which is comparable to that of the European Union). Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, invest less than 0.1% of their GDP in research and development, far lower than the OIC average of 0.5%.

So how does one go about fixing this dire state of science in the Muslim world? Some fixes are rather obvious, such as increasing the investment in scientific research and education, especially in the OIC countries which have the financial means and are currently lagging far behind in terms of how much funds are made available to improve the scientific infrastructures. Guessoum and Athar also highlight the importance of introducing key metrics to assess scientific productivity and the quality of science education. It is not easy to objectively measure scientific and educational impact, and one can argue about the significance or reliability of any given metric. But without any metrics, it will become very difficult for OIC universities to identify problems and weaknesses, build new research and educational programs and reward excellence in research and teaching. There is also a need for reforming the curriculum so that it shifts its focus from lecture-based teaching, which is so prevalent in OIC universities, to inquiry-based teaching in which students learn science hands-on by experimentally testing hypotheses and are encouraged to ask questions.

In addition to these commonsense suggestions, the task force also put forward a rather intriguing proposition to strengthen scientific research and education: place a stronger emphasis on basic liberal arts in science education. I could not agree more because I strongly believe that exposing science students to the arts and humanities plays a key role in fostering the creativity and curiosity required for scientific excellence. Science is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, and scientists can benefit greatly from studying philosophy, history or literature. A course in philosophy, for example, can teach science students to question their basic assumptions about reality and objectivity, encourage them to examine their own biases, challenge authority and understand the importance of doubt and uncertainty, all of which will likely help them become critical thinkers and better scientists.

However, the specific examples provided by Guessoum and Athar do not necessarily indicate a support for this kind of a broad liberal arts education. They mention the example of the newly founded private Habib University in Karachi which mandates that all science and engineering students also take classes in the humanities, including a two semester course in “hikma” or “traditional wisdom”. Upon reviewing the details of this philosophy course on the university’s website, it seems that the course is a history of Islamic philosophy focused on antiquity and pre-modern texts which date back to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The task force also specifically applauds an online course developed by Ahmed Djebbar. He is an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France, which attempts to stimulate scientific curiosity in young pre-university students by relating scientific concepts to great discoveries from the Islamic “Golden Age”. My concern is that this is a rather Islamocentric form of liberal arts education. Do students who have spent all their lives growing up in a Muslim society really need to revel in the glories of a bygone era in order to get excited about science? Does the Habib University philosophy course focus on Islamic philosophy because the university feels that students should be more aware of their cultural heritage or are there concerns that exposing students to non-Islamic ideas could cause problems with students, parents, university administrators or other members of society who could perceive this as an attack on Islamic values? If the true purpose of liberal arts education is to expand the minds of students by exposing them to new ideas, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on non-Islamic philosophy? It is definitely not a good idea to coddle Muslim students by adulating the “Golden Age” of Islam or using kid gloves when discussing philosophy in order to avoid offending them.

This leads us to a question that is not directly addressed by Guessoum and Osama: How “liberal” is a liberal arts education in countries with governments and societies that curtail the free expression of ideas? The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because of his liberal views that were perceived as an attack on religion. Faculty members at universities in Saudi Arabia who teach liberal arts courses are probably very aware of these occupational hazards. At first glance, professors who teach in the sciences may not seem to be as susceptible to the wrath of religious zealots and authoritarian governments. However, the above-mentioned interdisciplinary nature of science could easily spell trouble for free-thinking professors or students. Comments about evolutionary biology, the ethics of genome editing or discussing research on sexuality could all be construed as a violation of societal and religious norms.

The 2010 study Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university surveyed professors at an anonymous GCC university (most likely Qatar University since roughly 25% of the faculty members were Qatari nationals and the authors of the study were based in Qatar) regarding their views of academic freedom. The vast majority of faculty members (Arab and non-Arab) felt that academic freedom was important to them and that their university upheld academic freedom. However, in interviews with individual faculty members, the researchers found that the professors were engaging in self-censorship in order to avoid untoward repercussions. Here are some examples of the comments from the faculty at this GCC University:

“I am fully aware of our culture. So, when I suggest any topic in class, I don’t need external censorship except mine.”

“Yes. I avoid subjects that are culturally inappropriate.”

“Yes, all the time. I avoid all references to Israel or the Jewish people despite their contributions to world culture. I also avoid any kind of questioning of their religious tradition. I do this out of respect.”

This latter comment is especially painful for me because one of my heroes who inspired me to become a cell biologist was the Italian Jewish scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini. She revolutionized our understanding of how cells communicate with each other using growth factors. She was also forced to secretly conduct her experiments in her bedroom because the Fascists banned all “non-Aryans” from going to the university laboratory. Would faculty members who teach the discovery of growth factors at this GCC University downplay the role of the Nobel laureate Levi-Montalcini because she was Jewish? We do not know how prevalent this form of self-censorship is in other OIC countries because the research on academic freedom in Muslim-majority countries is understandably scant. Few faculty members would be willing to voice their concerns about government or university censorship and admitting to self-censorship is also not easy.

The task force report on science in the universities of Muslim-majority countries is an important first step towards reforming scientific research and education in the Muslim world. Increasing investments in research and development, using and appropriately acting on carefully selected metrics as well as introducing a core liberal arts curriculum for science students will probably all significantly improve the dire state of science in the Muslim world. However, the reform of the research and education programs needs to also include discussions about the importance of academic freedom. If Muslim societies are serious about nurturing scientific innovation, then they will need to also ensure that scientists, educators and students will be provided with the intellectual freedom that is the cornerstone of scientific creativity.


Guessoum, N., & Osama, A. (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526(7575), 634-6.

Romanowski, M. H., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university. Prospects, 40(4), 481-497.



 Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


Guessoum N, & Osama A (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526 (7575), 634-6 PMID: 26511563



Romanowski, M., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university PROSPECTS, 40 (4), 481-497 DOI: 10.1007/s11125-010-9166-2

Blissful Ignorance: How Environmental Activists Shut Down Molecular Biology Labs in High Schools

Hearing about the HannoverGEN project made me feel envious and excited. Envious, because I wish my high school had offered the kind of hands-on molecular biology training provided to high school students in Hannover, the capital of the German state of Niedersachsen. Excited, because it reminded me of the joy I felt when I first isolated DNA and ran gels after restriction enzyme digests during my first year of university in Munich. I knew that many of the students at the HannoverGEN high schools would be similarly thrilled by their laboratory experience and perhaps even pursue careers as biologists or biochemists.

What did HannoverGEN entail? It was an optional pilot program initiated and funded by the state government of Niedersachsen at four high schools in the Hannover area. Students enrolled in the HannoverGEN classes would learn to use molecular biology tools typically reserved for college-level or graduate school courses in order to study plant genetics. Some of the basic experiments involved isolating DNA from cabbage or how learning how bacteria transfer genes to plants, more advanced experiments enabled the students to analyze whether or not the genome of a provided maize sample had been genetically modified. Each experimental unit was accompanied by relevant theoretical instruction on the molecular mechanisms of gene expression and biotechnology as well as ethical discussions regarding the benefits and risks of generating genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). The details of the HannoverGEN program are only accessible through the the Wayback Machine Internet archive because the award-winning educational program and the associated website were shut down in 2013 at the behest of German anti-GMO activist groups, environmental activists, Greenpeace, the Niedersachsen Green Party and the German organic food industry.

Why did these activists and organic food industry lobbyists oppose a government-funded educational program which improved the molecular biology knowledge and expertise of high school students? A press release entitled “Keine Akzeptanzbeschaffung für Agro-Gentechnik an Schulen!” (“No Acceptance for Agricultural Gene Technology at Schools“) in 2012 by an alliance representing “organic” or “natural food” farmers accompanied by the publication of a critical “study” with the same title (PDF), which was funded by this alliance as well as its anti-GMO partners, gives us some clues. They feared that the high school students might become too accepting of biotechnology in agriculture and that the curriculum did not sufficiently highlight all the potential dangers of GMOs. By allowing the ethical discussions to not only discuss the risks but also mention the benefits of genetically modifying crops, students might walk away with the idea that GMOs could be beneficial for humankind. The group believed that taxpayer money should not be used to foster special interests such as those of the agricultural industry which may want to use GMOs.

A response by the University of Hannover (PDF), which had helped develop the curriculum and coordinated the classes for the high school students, carefully analyzed the complaints of the anti-GMO activists. The author of the anti-HannoverGEN “study” had not visited the HannoverGEN laboratories, nor had he had interviewed the biology teachers or students enrolled in the classes. In fact, his critique was based on weblinks that were not even used in the curriculum by the HannoverGEN teachers or students. His analysis ignored the balanced presentation of biotechnology that formed the basis of the HannoverGEN curriculum and that discussing potential risks of genetic modification was a core topic in all the classes.

Unfortunately, this shoddily prepared “study” had a significant impact, in part because it was widely promoted by partner organizations. Its release in the autumn of 2012 came at an opportune time for political activists because Niedersachsen was about to have an election. Campaigning against GMOs seemed like a perfect cause for the Green Party and a high school program which taught the use of biotechnology to high school students became a convenient lightning rod. When the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed a coalition after winning the election in early 2013, nixing the HannoverGEN high school program was formally included in the so-called coalition contract. This is a document in which coalition partners outline the key goals for the upcoming four year period. When one considers how many major issues and problems the government of a large German state has to face, such as healthcare, education, unemployment or immigration, it is mind-boggling that de-funding a program involving only four high schools received so much attention that it needed to be anchored in the coalition contract. In fact, it is a testimony to the influence and zeal of the anti-GMO lobby.

Once the cancellation of HannoverGEN was announced, the Hannover branch of Greenpeace also took credit for campaigning against this high school program and celebrated its victory. The Greenpeace anti-GMO activist David Petersen said that the program was too cost intensive because equipping high school laboratories with state-of-the-art molecular biology equipment had already cost more than 1 million Euros. The previous center-right government which had initiated the HannoverGEN project was planning on expanding the program to even more high schools because of the program’s success and national recognition for innovative teaching. According to Petersen, this would have wasted even more taxpayer money without adequately conveying the dangers of using GMOs in agriculture.

The scientific community was shaken up by the decision of the new Social Democrat-Green Party coalition government in Niedersachsen. This was an attack on the academic freedom of schools under the guise of accusing them of promoting special interests while ignoring that the anti-GMO activists were representing their own special interests. The “study” attacking HannoverGEN was funded by the lucrative “organic” or “natural food” food industry! Scientists and science writers such as Martin Ballaschk or Lars Fischer wrote excellent critical articles stating that squashing high-quality, hand-on science programs could not lead to better decision-making. How could ignorant students have a better grasp of GMO risks and benefits than those who receive relevant formal science education and thus make truly informed decisions? Sadly, this outcry by scientists and science writers did not make much of a difference. It did not seem that the media felt this was much of a cause to fight for. I wonder if the media response would have been just as lackluster if the government had de-funded a hands-on science lab to study the effects of climate change.

In 2014, the government of Niedersachsen then announced that they would resurrect an advanced biology laboratory program for high schools with the generic and vague title “Life Science Lab”. By removing the word “Gen” from its title which seems to trigger visceral antipathy among anti-GMO activists, de-emphasizing genome science and by also removing any discussion of GMOs from the curriculum, this new program would leave students in the dark about GMOs. Ignorance is bliss from an anti-GMO activist perspective because the void of scientific ignorance can be filled with fear.

From the very first day that I could vote in Germany during the federal election of 1990, I always viewed the Green Party as a party that represented my generation. A party of progressive ideas, concerned about our environment and social causes. However, the HannoverGEN incident is just one example of how the Green Party is caving in to ideologies, thus losing its open-mindedness and progressive nature. In the United States, the anti-science movement, which attacks teaching climate change science or evolutionary biology at schools, tends to be rooted in the right wing political spectrum. Right wingers or libertarians are the ones who always complain about taxpayer dollars being wasted and used to promote agendas in schools and universities. But we should not forget that there is also a different anti-science movement rooted in the leftist and pro-environmental political spectrum – not just in Germany. As a scientist, I feel that it is becoming increasingly difficult to support the Green Party because of its anti-science stance.

I worry about all anti-science movements, especially those which attack science education. There is nothing wrong with questioning special interests and ensuring that school and university science curricula are truly balanced. But the balance needs to be rooted in scientific principles, not political ideologies. Science education has a natural bias – it is biased towards knowledge that is backed up by scientific evidence. We can hypothetically discuss dangers of GMOs but the science behind the dangers of GMO crops is very questionable. Just like environmental activists and leftists agree with us scientists that we do not need to give climate change deniers and creationists “balanced” treatment in our science curricula, they should also accept that much of the “anti-GMO science” is currently more based on ideology than on actual scientific data. Our job is to provide excellent science education so that our students can critically analyze and understand scientific research, independent of whether or not it supports our personal ideologies.


Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Dual Identity and Radicalism Among Immigrants

The majority of my scientific colleagues with whom I work in the United States are either immigrants or children of immigrants. Most of them are American citizens, but they also retain strong cultural bonds with their ancestral homelands. This does not seem to constitute much of a problem for them. America is the land of immigrants where one is surrounded by people who are quite comfortable with their hyphenated dual identities. Irish-Americans or Chinese-Americans can be proud of their respective Irish and Chinese heritages without feeling that this makes them “less” American.

The situation was rather different when I lived in Germany. I was the only German with Pakistani roots among all the medical students at my university in Munich, and I did not know of any other hyphenated Germans at the research institute where I worked in the early 1990s. We had visiting scientists or PhD students, such as a grad student from Taiwan in our laboratory, but it was generally understood that they would go back to whatever country they came from. Their colleagues did not expect them to ever “feel German” and the visiting scientists or students also did not intend to “become German”. My Taiwanese lab-mate learned enough German to complete his PhD dissertation, but had no long-term plans of living in Germany. He clearly identified with being Taiwanese and his goal was to return to Taiwan.

Twenty years later, the situation in Germany has changed quite a bit. Hyphenated Germans are becoming far more common at universities. This is in part due to the fact that it has become much easier to become a permanent resident or acquire German citizenship, both for adult immigrants as well as their children. Children from immigrant families have grown up in Germany and they now have to grapple with their dual identities. Unlike the United States, where dual identities have been around for centuries and there is a broad acceptance of having two or even more identities, German society and the emerging hyphenated Germans are still trying to figure out what it means to be a Turkish-German, Nigerian-German or Russian-German.

In my own experience, having a dual identity has been an asset, allowing me to interact with and learn from a broad spectrum of fellow humans. However, I also realize that having a dual identity can also be somewhat problematic. The recent study “When Dual Identity Becomes a Liability : Identity and Political Radicalism Among Migrants” by Bernd Simon and colleagues in the journal Psychological Science (advanced online publication on January 14, 2013) attempted to study the impact of having a dual identity on political radicalism. The researchers recruited university students in Germany with either Turkish or Russian immigrant backgrounds and asked them to answer a set of questions about their personal experiences with having a dual identity using a Web-based questionnaire. Roughly half of the students were German citizens and the average percentage of lifetime spent in Germany was 66%.
Four questions assessed the extent of having a dual identity:


1) “I feel I belong to both the Turks/Russians and the Germans”

2) “Sometimes I feel more like a German and sometimes more like a Turk/Russian—it depends on the situation”

3) “I have many similarities with Germans as well as Turks/Russians”

4) “I feel good in the Turkish/Russian as well as the German culture.”
The students were also asked to address whether they felt there was an incompatibility of their ethnic and their German identity:

“I have the feeling that I would have to give up my Turkish/ Russian identity if I wanted to become German”
The participants also answered a number of additional questions about their cultural, national and religious identity.
In addition to these questions, the researchers assessed whether the students expressed support or understanding for “radical” (illegal, violent) actions, such as participating in an illegal demonstration, participating in a violent demonstration, blocking a road, occupying houses or offices, writing a political slogan on a public wall, and damaging other people’s property. The students also indicated whether they agreed with the following statements:

“I would participate even in a protest action that may involve a confrontation with the police”

“If the police and the courts can’t provide justice, you sometimes have to bring about justice yourself.”

Rating scales for these eight items (the six “radical” actions and the two “radical” statements) ranged from 0 (no understanding/not true at all ) to 4 (total understanding/absolutely true) and these eight items were used to determine their sympathy for radical action.

The results of the study are quite interesting. Having a dual identity by itself was only correlated with sympathy for radical action, if the respondents felt that the two identities were incompatible, i.e. becoming German would mean having to give up their Turkish or Russian identity. Students who felt that the German identity was quite compatible with their ethnic identity did not express any significant sympathy for radical action. Furthermore, among students with a Turkish immigrant background, sympathy for radical action decreased when religious identification became stronger and among Russian immigrant background students, it decreased when ethnocultural identification became stronger. This may come as a surprise to people who assume that stronger religious identification encourages sympathy for radical actions.

There are some limitations of this study. It only assessed sympathy for radical action by self-report without necessarily measuring actual participation in radical action, and one can debate whether showing support for writing political graffiti or participating in an illegal demonstration is as “radical” as endorsing actual violence. The study was purely correlational, without being able to determine cause-effect relationships and it also did not assess why some participants felt that their dual identities were incompatible. Nevertheless, this research suggests that possible sympathy for radical actions is not associated with having a dual identity, but with the perception of incompatibility between the two identities. One can surmise that reducing the perception of incompatibility could potentially reduce the sympathy for radical (illegal and violent) actions, but this would have to be addressed in future studies that investigate the effect of such an intervention.

How does one overcome the perception of incompatibility? My own experience is that multiple identities are not only compatible, but they are also complementary. I do not think that I have to sacrifice one cultural identity for another one. I notice that there are numerous parallels and similarities between German, Pakistani and American cultures in terms of the core values and goals of people. However, people often tend to focus on the differences and rare incompatibilities, because they make for sensationalist stories or political rallying cries that are far more marketable than the “boring” realization of how similar we all are. Societies in other countries such as the United States have also had periods in time during which dual identities were eyed with suspicion and their citizens felt that their identities were incompatible, but they were able to overcome these conflicts. This makes me optimistic that in Germany we will also reach a point when dual identities will be widely accepted and perhaps even seen as an important part of the fabric of the future German society.

Image credit: Germany flag map via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain – shows all the states of Germany with their individual flags

The Importance of Being Embryonic

Human ESC colony – Wikimedia

There are three broad categories of human stem cells: 1) adult stem cells, 2) embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and 3) induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Adult stem cells can be found in selected adult tissues, such as the hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow which give rise to a variety of blood cells on a daily basis in an adult. Such adult stem cells are quite rare and, when compared to ESCs, somewhat limited in the type of cells they can generate. Hematopoietic stem cells, for example, routinely produce leukocytes (white blood cells) and erythrocytes (red blood cells), but most researchers agree that they cannot give rise heart muscle cells. On the other hand, human ESCs are pluripotent, which refers to the fact that they can differentiate into nearly all cell types, from neurons to insulin-producing pancreatic cells or even heart muscle cells.

Human ESCs are usually derived from human eggs that were created in an in vitro fertilization clinic but never implanted in a woman. Such clinics often generate far more fertilized human eggs than they actually implant, because it is difficult to predict how many implantation attempts are necessary before a successful pregnancy can be achieved. The “back-up” eggs remain in a freezer at the in vitro fertilization clinic and the donors can then decide whether they want these eggs to be used for the generation of human ESCs, which can be used for either research or ESC-based therapies. The informed consent of the donors is critical and needs to be documented before the ethics committees at the research institutions permit their usage. In spite of these regulations, some religious groups in the US have voiced concerns about using the ESCs, because they feel that even though the donated fertilized egg was never implanted in a woman, it could have been implanted and that its fertilized state already indicates a degree of personhood that requires protection. When the fertilized egg is cultured in a lab and ESCs are derived from it, the fertilized egg is invariably destroyed and from a certain religious perspective, this constitutes a destruction of a human life. Due to concerns about the ethics of using human ESCs, multiple US-based Christian groups have championed the use of adult stem cells to help repair injured tissues and organs. However, since adult stem cells are very rare and limited in their differentiation potential, most stem cell biologists do not see adult stem cells as a suitable alternative to ESCs.

A landmark paper published by Shinya Yamanaka’s group in 2007 provided a new perspective in the gridlock between demands of Christian groups to ban human ESC research and the desire of stem cell biologists to use human ESCs for regenerative medicine.  Yamanaka and his colleagues were able to show that human adult skin fibroblasts could be converted into embryonic-like stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs). The iPSCs were not adult stem cells with, but actually exhibited the broad differentiation capacity that was previously only seen in human ESCs. From an ethical perspective, iPSCs seemed like a perfect solution since they could be generated without the destruction of any fertilized eggs. Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon, whose earlier work had set the stage for Yamanaka’s discovery, received the 2012 Nobel Prize for these exciting findings. Yamanaka’s work was not only lauded by fellow scientists, but also by religious groups, who felt that his work abolished the need for human ESCs. What these religious organizations did not understand was that human ESC research provided the foundation for Yamanaka’s research. All the factors used to reprogram adult skin cells into iPSCs were derived from a careful analysis of ESCs and the culture of human iPSCs was only made possible after the culture of human ESCs had been established in the late 1990s. To this day, the comparison of human ESCs and iPSCs is a topic of active investigation. In many ways, iPSC research is still – pardon the pun – in its embryonic stage. We are still in the process of understanding how an adult cell can be reprogrammed into an iPSC and whether the reprogramming process leaves any kind of marks or blemishes that would affect the generated iPSC.

To understand the biology and nature of iPSCs, researchers routinely use them side-by-side with human ESCs, which still serve as the “gold-standard” for a pluripotent stem cell. At a symposium of the International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) in San Francisco on August 24, 2012, Yamanaka showed the results of a new study in which he compared the gene expression profiles of 49 different human iPSC lines and 10 different human ESC lines. The comparison revealed that the majority of iPSC lines are indistinguishable from human ESCs, but that there is a minority of iPSC cell lines that behave very differently from human ESCs. Other stem cell researchers have also shown both similarities and differences between ESCs and iPSCs, and definitive conclusions about whether human ESCs and iPSCs are equally suitable for regenerating human tissues and organs cannot yet be drawn.

These new studies remind us that human ESC research is still a very active area of investigation and that in the years to come, research on both ESCs and iPSCs is needed. This was also emphasized in a recent statement by the ISSCR:


Yamanaka’s recent and exciting advances demonstrate that it is possible to reprogram cells in adult human tissues into cells that very closely resemble, but may not be identical to, ES cells. Along with recent progress on redirecting cell fate to enhance tissue repair, these experiments have captured the imagination of the scientific community worldwide. While many scientists are very optimistic about the future of this new research, some people in political circles have incorrectly interpreted this enthusiasm as a verdict that research on human ES cells is no longer necessary. This conclusion is not yet scientifically justified.

At present, and in the foreseeable future, there is a strong scientific and medical consensus that continued research on all types of stem cells is critical to developing research strategies that will ultimately provide new therapies. Supporting all forms of stem cell research is in the best long-term interests of a broad spectrum of patients with debilitating diseases and injuries. In fact, predictions about what might or might not be possible cannot substitute for careful and rigorous research to discover what strategy will provide the most successful therapeutic intervention for a given disease or condition. The basic tools for these discoveries include human ES cells, which remain the benchmark for assessing pluripotency and the ability of cells to develop into all the different cell types of the body.

In the wake of the announcement of the Nobel Prize, the ISSCR (whose current president is Shinya Yamanaka) wanted to pre-empt any attempts to dismiss the importance of human ESC research, which remains a cornerstone of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. I applaud the ISSCR for this pro-active approach. Taking ethical concerns into account is important, but one also needs to make sure that scientific discoveries are not misused to put forward political or religious agendas. In the next years or decades, we may indeed discover that iPSCs can completely replace human ESCs. On the other hand, we may discover that iPSCs and ESCs will play distinct and complementary roles in the future of regenerative medicine. We will not know the answer to the question until we conduct the research and keep an open mind when we assess the results. The nascent biology of iPSCs and ESCs is a journey into the unknown and this is what makes it such an exciting area of research.