Happy Old Year

Chris Mooney

With each minute that passes, it becomes more and more astonishing that anyone ever thought the Raelian cult’s alleged human cloning was, um, real. Indeed, with each new turn in this story—the most recent being journalist Michael Guillen’s decision to give up on corroborating the cloning claim—the supposed birth of “Eve” looks more and more like a publicity stunt timed for just after Christmas, one of the slowest news weeks of the year. Skeptics have seen plenty of hoaxes in the sphere of the paranormal, but when there’s a serious scientific issue at stake the result is in many ways much worse. The Raelians have received far more attention for their alleged cloning than they ever did for their longstanding UFO claims.

It’s not just that this cooked-up crisis represents a massive journalistic breakdown, as the bioethicist Arthur Caplan has argued. That breakdown was facilitated by woeful scientific ignorance on the part of journalists and the public. In a sense, a single Associated Press article written in the wake of the cloning furor tells us all we need to know about this embarrassing journalistic collapse, one that calls to mind a similar media driven frenzy over cold fusion over a decade ago.

The article in question was headlined “Don’t expect clones to be replicas"; its subtitle was “Nongenetic factors have significant influence on who we are.” There’s little to summarize: It was a lowest common denominator wire story with an anecdotal opening about twins and a few quotes from scientists. But what’s striking is how low the common denominator actually was. If you’ve paid any serious attention to the cloning debate since the birth of Dolly in 1997, there was no need to read this piece, because the notion that a cloned human would be identical to anyone is simply absurd. If this were the Iraq debate, the equivalent of this AP story would be an article explaining that the Middle East has lots of oil.

As the aforementioned report suggests, journalists have barely led us forward at all in our thinking about cloning since 1997. And even then, the notion that clones would be identical to their genetic predecessors was ludicrous. At the time, writing for my college’s quarterly political journal, I did my own small part to debunk it:

Every identical twin is a clone of his or her twin, for the two share identical genetic information. However, identical twins do not remain identical for very long. Two identical twins inevitably have different womb and life experiences, and thus become quite different people. Nurture plays a very significant — though no one knows exactly how significant — role in the formation of human identity. (This means that a super-clone, a clone identical in every possible way to its clonee, the doppleganger myth has taught us to fear, will always remain a scientific impossibility.) And if nurture matters so much, if two identical twins end up quite distinct from one another, how different would the clone of someone who grew up in Los Angeles in the 70s be after growing up in New York in the 21st century?

Though this particular passage holds up pretty well, a look back at this ancient article actually made me cringe at some of my mistaken arguments. It was a bracing experience, but on cloning, the media hasn’t undergone a similar maturation. In fact, in their understanding of biotechnology more generally many journalists are still in their swaddling clothes.

Communications scholars who have studied media representations of biotechnology, like CSICOP alum Matthew Nisbet, have documented just how haphazard the reporting has often been. As Nisbet put it in an article published last summer in the journal Science Communication:

Biotechnology coverage has been heavily event-centered or episodic within years, peaking or plummeting across week or month in correspondence to the latest major article appearing in Science or Nature, the announcements of politicians or regulatory bodies…or the occasional high profile incident such as the claims of scientist Richard Seed, the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings, or the death of gene therapy patient Jesse Gelsinger.

This is just the sort of coverage—start and stop, remember and forget again—that allowed the Raelians to swoop in and dominate CNN. Granted, there have been other more legitimate cloning-related stories in the past year and a half: Advanced Cell Technology’s embryo cloning announcement in 2001; the debate over the Brownback bill to ban human cloning and embryo cloning for research purposes. But despite all this and the stem cell debate of 2001, I suspect that if you were to ask most cable news reporters to name the difference between stem cell research and cloned embryo research they wouldn’t be able to answer. And any sense of what constitutes legitimate cloning news slipped out the window when the opportunity appeared to put UFO worshippers on camera, instead of treating the group with massive amounts of skepticism.

There’s another sense in which we haven’t progressed on cloning since 1997 or 1998. Today’s journalists don’t seem to have learned any lesson at all from the case of the retired physicist Richard Seed, mentioned by Nisbet. Much like the Raelians, Seed was a nobody who claimed he would clone a human in early 1998, not so long after the world learned about Dolly.

With Seed’s implausible announcement, a burst of hysteria swept from coast to coast, much as it did in the case of the Raelians’ alleged cloning. In both cases, there was talk of draconian legislation to criminalize all forms of cloning, regardless of the impact on legitimate scientific research. The current fuss is even less excusable, however, because we know a great deal more now about the enormous potential that human embryo cloning for medical research holds for helping those suffering from degenerative diseases.

But despite this, in the latest furor few bothered to distinguish between the different types of cloning. As Caplan puts it, “When lawmakers say they are for a ban on cloning, any journalist worth his or her salt should be asking, ‘For research, too?’ Most have not.” In fact, some lawmakers may be more misinformed than the journalists. Both Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator Dianne Feinstein have hinted that the Raelians’ supposed clone, “Eve,” would in some sense not be human. This is an entirely irresponsible suggestion, and one that could literally pave the way for moral atrocities if and when we do find cloned people among us.

Is there any good news to fix upon in the wake of the Raelian cloning furor? Certainly some hope can be found in the fact that the media are taking a serious beating right now. And not only that: Major networks will probably have to keep covering the story they created, even though they will look worse and worse as it continues to unfold. Although the folks at CNN may not learn any science from their Raelian encounter, they may learn shame instead.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.