Human Exceptionalism

“Science by Press Release”

My piece on the Advanced Cell Technology mendacity and the media malpractice scandal is now up at the Weekly Standard. The piece is about 1000 words, but here are a few highlights:

“‘NEW STEM CELL METHOD avoids destroying embryos,’ the New York Times headline blared. ‘Stem cell breakthrough may end political logjam,’ chimed in the Los Angeles Times. ‘Embryos spared in stem cell creation,’ affirmed USA Today. Reporting the same supposed scientific achievement by Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), the Washington Post quoted the company’s bioethics adviser Ronald Green: ‘You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed.’

“Unfortunately, you can’t ‘honestly’ say that. The above headlines–like Green’s statement and innumerable similar press accounts around the world–are just plain wrong. While ACT did indeed issue a press release heralding its embryonic stem cell experiment as having ‘successfully generated human embryonic stem cells using an approach that does not harm embryos,’ the actual report of the research led by ACT chief scientist Robert Lanza, published in Nature, tells a very different story. In fact, Lanza destroyed all 16 of the embryos he used, just as in conventional embryonic stem cell research.”

“Reporters should be more sophisticated. They should know that the history of science is rife with promising early experiments that never came to fruition. Reporters should be especially aware of this in the field of cloning research, where the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” definitely applies.

“And this is especially relevant to ACT. For, though the company has never been guilty of the outright scientific fraud perpetrated by South Korean cloning researcher Wu-suk Hwang, its misleading press release is all too typical. In the last few years, ACT’s publicity department has repeatedly generated high-visibility stories about supposed scientific breakthroughs–which turned out later to be grossly exaggerated or flat-out false.”

I then describe three of these hyped reports about ACT, and conclude with the following:

“So now, it’s deja vu all over again, with ACT lionized by a media stampede over a purported research breakthrough that the company did not actually achieve. This is not to say, of course, that deriving embryonic stem cell lines from a procedure that allows the embryo to survive is impossible–only that it hasn’t been done. Lanza’s experiment does demonstrate that stem cell lines can be obtained earlier than previously thought. But that wasn’t good enough for ACT’s publicity office or the lazy reporters who regurgitated the press release. The failure to report this story accurately amounts to massive journalistic malpractice–and once again ACT is laughing all the way to the bank.”

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