“Stroke Damage May Help Smokers Kick the Habit: The insula, an area of the brain largely ignored by researchers, may hold the key to breaking harmful addictions” (Scientific American Science and Technology News, January 25, 2007)
“Fresh light thrown on tragic drug trial: Animal tests may have missed danger because monkeys ‘too clean’.” (firstname.lastname@example.org online, January 25, 2007)
“Preparing cloning for market: Ranchers are getting set, but are consumers ready?” (Boston Globe, January 26, 2007)
“Biomed firm commercializes stem-cell sales” (UPI Business Newstrack)
“New WARF Stem Cell Rules To Benefit Biotech Research” (BioWorld Headlines, AHC Media, LLC, January 25, 2007)
“Crunch time for multiple-gene tests: Sophisticated new genetic tests face an uncertain future — unless they can win clear-cut approval from regulators, insurers and, most importantly, doctors. Virginia Gewin reports.” (Nature News, premium access only)
“Stem Cell Debate Rages: Effective Treatements “Decades Away” Prof. McKeown Shocks Audience” (Beaumont College Alumni News, as reported in NEXT, 2006)
Only that last headline is fictional, from Michael Crichton’s newest book, NEXT.
I’m just a bit more than half-way through the book, but the fact is that I had to “Google” the fake news report to convince myself that it wasn’t a very real article from some past news source. After my sureal experience of researching today’s news and having to remind myself that the Google stuff was “real,” I was spurred to give y’all a heads up.
Dr. Crichton is the author of The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and The Terminal Man. His science fiction is heavy on science and he has always seemed to be drawing on tomorrow’s news stories – probably (I’d like to believe) because of his medical training.
This book is not very flattering to doctors. Or the media, research scientists, regulatory agencies, public policy makers or politicians. I had nearly decided that the author was stretching reality and coincidence in order to build his story, but then I opened my e-mail this morning and there were the Google News search alerts I’ve cited above – some of which are more fantastic than anything in the book so far.
In that “fake” news piece above, the reporter quotes a fictional professor of biology as he describes the hype that’s surrounded stem cell research, including a thorough history of the human cloning scandals by Korea’s Hwang Wu Suk. The “doc” continues,
“. . . First, in a media-saturated world, persisitent hype lends unwarranted credulity to the wildest claims. For years the media have touted stem cell research as the coming miracle. So when somebody announced that the miracle had arrived, he was believed. Does that imply there is a danger in media hype? You bet. Because not only does it raise cruel hopes among the ill, it affects scientiest, too. They start to believe the miracle is around the corner – even thought they shourld know better.
“What can we do about media hype? It would stop in a week, if scientific institutions want that. They don’t. They love the hype. They know it brings grants. So that won’t change. Yale, Stanfor, and Jons Hopkins promote hype just as much as Exxon or Ford. So whenever you hear a scientist claim that his statements have been exaggerated, or taken out of context, just ask him if he has written a letter of protest to the editor. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he hasn’t.”
. . .
“Next lesson: Peer review. All of Hwang’s papers in Science were peer-reviewed. If we ever needed evidence that peer review is an empty ritual, this episode provides it. Whang made extraordianry claims. He did not provide extraordinary evidence. many studies have shown that peer review does not improve the quality of scientific papers. Scientists themselves know it doesn’t work. Yet the public still regards it as a sign of quality, and says, “This paper was peer-reviewed,’ or ‘This paper was not peer-reviewed,’ as if that meant something. It doesn’t.
“Next, the journals themselves. Where was the firm hand of the editor of Science? Remember that the journal Science is a big enterprise – 115 people work on that magazine. Yet gross fraud, including photographs altered with Adobe Photoshop, were not detected. And Photoshop is widely known as a major tool of scientific fraud. Yet the magazine had no way to detect it.”
. . .
“The ultimate lesson is that science isn’t special – at lest not anymore. Maybe back when Einstein talked to Niels Bohr, and there were only a few dozen important workers in every field. But there are now three million researchers in America. It’s no longer a calling, it’s a career. Science is as corruptible a human activity as any other. Its practitioners aren’t saints, they’re human beings, and they do what human beings do – lie, cheat, steal from one another, sue, hide data, fake data, overstate their own importance and denigrate opposing views unfairly. That’s human nature. It isn’t going to change.”
Crichton also slams the patents on human genes and on cells that have been removed from patients in the course of medical treatment – patents that become property and make people near-property of universities and then private corporations.
(He also tweeks people like me, who love to give references in the form of urls or internet addresses in support of their points. One of the characters invents pages of “Google” references in just a few hours in order to hide her own secret. Lesson: Watch your sources, verify and then verify, again.)
Crichton is one of the writers that I recommend for what I call “ethics lessons we don’t have to learn the hard way.” Science fiction, which long-time Astounding Science Fiction – now Analog Science Fiction and Fact – editor John Campbell called “future fiction,” often explores the “why’s” and “why not’s” of science, medicine and research, and the feelings that characters experience in what are (usually) novel situations that strain everyday ethics. Just as we study classical and contemporary fiction to learn more about the human condition, we can learn from science fiction authors’ and their characters’ reaction to what is fantastic today (but may not be tomorrow, in
a few minutes, or in an “alternate history”), as well as our reaction to their reactions.
I recommend the NEXT to other SF fans and bioethics nuts. I also recently read and recommend Prey and I’m listening to State of Fear on Audiobooks. My favorites are still The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, but Congo is worth reading, too.