Reporting Facts, Not Faith

Laurie Zoloth almost got it.

"Science is valid because it cannot be taken on faith alone," Zoloth wrote it today's Los Angeles Times, in a commentary on the cloning scandal in South Korea.

Zoloth, a brilliant and insightful bioethicist, is professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society, and an outspoken supporter of embryonic stem cell research. But she seems unable to grapple with the issue the center of the cloning scandal.

"How could we have seen it coming??" she asks. "All the mechanisms of scientific integrity and a skeptical media were engaged in reporting the apparent successes."

The fatal flaw in Zoloth's thinking? The assumption that "all the mechanisms of scientific integrity" were "engaged in reporting the apparent successes" of Hwang Woo-suk, the creator of "Snuppy" the cloned dog and of the first human clones.

The South Korea Scandal happenened because bioethicists, researchers, and journalists
--instead of being engaged in skeptical inquiry about the "promise" of embryonic stem cells and the "successes" of Dr. Hwang--were instead engaged in reporting on the controversy over stem cell ethics. The mechanisms and institutions and experts who should have turned a skeptical eye to Dr. Hwang's work instead were, in a word, "framed."

Since 2001, when stem cells first burst onto the headlines, the news coverage and public debate has been framed as a "science versus religion" story, with Pulitizer Prize winners and stem cell advocates pushing for funding for researcher and religious conservatives standing the way. Stem cells were seen as an extension of the abortion divide, with the main issue being whether or not the human embryos--the source for embryonic stem cells--were "human" or not.

Almost no one one asked the hard questions about the "promise" of stem cells. How real is the possibility of cures? What will it cost? What problems stand in the way? Can issues of tissue rejection be overcome? Will cures require cloning on a massive scale?

Instead, reporters, bioethicists, politicians, and scientists put blind faith that embryonic stem cells will become a panacea, and cure all of our human ills. Dr. Hwang took advantage of that blind faith. It could be argued, that stem cell supporters in California got 3 billion dollars from that state's government based on that blind faith as well.

Zoloth made one point perfectly clear in her Times piece. When it comes to embryonic stem cells, "the truth needs to be told with utter urgency."

Unfortunately, she chooses the dream of stem cell instead of the truth.

"The core idea," she writes, "that at the earliest stages of development, all beings begin with a set of identical cells that could turn into any cell — is a powerful one that will be studied, understood and, with courage and tenacity, luck and grace, used to treat suffering and waiting patients. That is not a fantasy, and that is not a fraud."

The truth is that there is no proof that embryonic stem cells will yield cures to human disease. There is a possibility, but no honest talk about the obstacles that stand in the way--and what it might take in terms of time, funding, or ethical practices to make those cures reality.

Enough of talk about "courage and tenacity, luck and grace," of the promise of cures, and of the ethical debates. What we need is cold hard facts, and honest assessments of the state of the science and the outlook for the future.

In speaking to the New York Times about the cloning scandal, Zoloth asked, "Is this our version of W.M.D.?"

The comparison is apt. In Iraq, we are seeing the cost, in human lives and in follars, the danger of putting blind faith ahead of facts. Before we spent billions chasing stem cell cures, it's time to find out if they are fact or fiction. Reality or a dream.


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