Human Exceptionalism

“The Hard Cell,” ACT Wrap Up

I have a piece in today’s Daily Standard, which is intended as a follow up to my piece two weeks ago in the Weekly Standard. I recap the incorrect reporting about ACT’s embryonic stem cell non-breakthrough, point out that the walk back on the story has been much more subdued than the original reporting, and reach three conclusions about the entire debacle.

1. Advanced Cell Technology has no credibility: As I wrote in the Weekly Standard, this is at least the fourth time that ACT has generated profoundly misleading media stories about its supposed scientific breakthroughs–only to have them discredited or revealed as substantially overblown. This time, however, some of the world’s most widely read journalists were deceived into writing bad stories because ACT and Nature issued misleading press releases. Journalists don’t like to be made fools. Thus, it is doubtful that ACT will ever again enjoy the kind of free publicity it has been able to generate in the past by hyping the results of its experiments.

“2. The media is utterly obsessed with overturning President Bush’s embryonic stem cell federal funding policy: Why did this arcane science story receive such high-profile and ubiquitous coverage? And why have many of these same outlets been so subdued in walking the now discredited story back? One reason and one reason only: ACT’s supposed breakthrough was perceived as undermining President Bush’s embryonic stem cell funding restrictions.

Most of the Fourth Estate fervently believes that President Bush’s stem cell policy is responsible for undermining science and depriving sick people of cures. This is the prism through which all stories about stem cell research are analyzed. Thus, stories that would seem to support the wisdom of Bush’s policy–such as the many advances in adult stem cell research in human studies–are underplayed or ignored, while embryonic stem cell-boosting news is often hyped to the hilt. With this as the context, the media’s exaggerated coverage, and subsequent refusal to adequately correct the record, becomes easy to understand.

“3. Science is in danger of devolving into a special interest: ACT’s deception has cast klieg lights on a cancer that is corroding the foundation of science: As Big Biotech and its politicized allies among the science intelligentsia seek desperately to destroy the Bush funding policy in order to garner hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, scientists are acting increasingly like special interest lobbyists who are more than willing to twist the truth to gain access to the public trough. This intense politicization of science threatens to erode the public’s trust in the entire science sector.”

I then conclude: “Ethics aside, Lanza’s published paper incrementally advanced scientific knowledge by proving that under the right circumstances, embryonic stem cells could be derived from very early embryos. This is not the same thing as generating stem cells without destroying embryos, a feat that has not yet been–and may never be–accomplished. But incremental experiments do not make international headlines or substantially undermine President Bush’s stem cell funding policy. And thus was a journalistic debacle born.”