One of the most infuriating aspects for me in the embryonic stem cell debates has been the continual
hype lying I have seen–indeed, personally witnessed–by scientists. I say lying because that is a knowing and willful misstatement of fact, as opposed to hype, which is an exaggeration or what we in law call “puffing.” Scientists blatantly lie about the biological nature of embryos, about the biology and consequences of somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning, about whether a human embryo is actually “human.” I debated one “scientist” who told the audience an early embryo wasn’t human because it doesn’t have toes or fingers! And to win a political debate and get money from the federal government, they blatantly used desperately sick people by blatantly and maliciously misstating the time in which any ESC based products would provide medical treatments. It was a shameful exercise aided and abetted by the anti Bush media that continually reported stem cell stories through the prism of destroying the president’s funding policy.
Now the pro ESCR bioethicist Art Caplan–who did not engage in these tactics–hits the nail on the head about the falsity of ESCR advocacy. From a joint interview between Caplan and Robert George:
AC: …Embryonic stem-cell research was completely overhyped, in terms of its promise. And people knew it at the time. I tried to say so myself at different times myself, even though I support embryonic stem-cell research. But this notion that people would be out of their wheelchairs within a year if we could just get embryonic stem-cell research funded was just ludicrous. Just simply silly.
RG: They knew it at the time?
AC: Yes, those saying it had to know it at the time. The scientists had to have known that. Who has ever delivered a cure in a year from something that’s basically a dish? That’s never happened. Gene therapy was promised as a cure for everything, and it is now starting to cure things, 15 years after the initial gene therapy experiments in dishes were being done. I think embryonic stem-cell research—if it works out, if you can control stem cells derived from embryos, if they don’t revert back… but we don’t know what chemicals to put around them, to get them to become what we want. We don’t know where to put them. But the politics of that issue were abortion politics, meaning that one side had as a principle, “Don’t kill.” The other side had as a principle, “You’ve got to cure.” And that escalated the rhetoric. So I think the science got hyped in response to the politics. Norms drove the debate. Embryonic stem-cell research for me is one of what I might list as 20 scientific frontiers that you might want to pursue. It’s not the frontier, but it’s one of a number of them.
And it remains not “the only hope:”
RG: But it sounds to me like a niche.
AC: Oh it’s a niche, absolutely. Bio-banking, synthetic biology, bioagriculture, regenerative medicine at the adult stem cell level… There’s a bunch of areas of science with equal promise—
RG: If scientists knew that what they were doing was hyping it, then—even laying aside the ethical question about the status of human embryos—it seems to be deeply dishonest, clearly wrong.
Oh yes. But there was money and political power in them thar hills! What’s a little lying and corruption of science? No honor.