Scientific controversies and the media, part 2

Mass media are often blamed for playing a role in the construction of scientific controversies. For instance, the last couple of years multiple voices have been accusing the media of greatly contributing in creating the controversy around climate change. The May issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science carries two articles on the role of the media in scientific controversies. The second article argues that media controversies can actually sometimes be beneficial for the scientific community.

The article in the May issue of Public Understanding of Science is written by nanotechnologist and science writer Mary Ingram-Waters. She analyses a controversy that arguably found closure due to the media frenzy created around it.

In 1996 sheep Dolly, the first cloned animal, saw the light of day. In the following years scientist tried hard to make the distinction between therapeutic cloning, in which cells or tissue is cloned for therapeutic reasons, and reproductive cloning, which involves the cloning of an entire living creature, indisputable. Most scientist were in favor of the first type of cloning, but were careful towards the other, because of the ethical questions surrounding it. Anti-cloning advocates argued it was all the same, since for the most part it involved the same technology, including the need for stem cells.

The controversy turned into a media frenzy when in the year 2000 different people claimed to be able to clone a human being soon. Amongst them were a few physicians with a more or less respectable reputation and a religious group called the Raëlians. Their leader, a man calling himself Raël, said he was visited by aliens almost thirty years before. These aliens supposedly created the human race by making clones of themselves. They told Raël the (peaceful) future of mankind would lie in cloning a selected group of individuals over and over, thereby making them immortal.

The race was on. Then, after two years of continuous media attention, the Raëlians were the first to announce they had created a human clone: a healthy baby girl called Eve. But they refused to give any proof. They didn’t want to reveal anything about the science they had used, nor did they want to reveal any details about Eve or her whereabouts. From the start, the media reacted skeptically to the claims of this somewhat peculiar religious organization. Scientists immediately jumped to the opportunity to, in the media, explain the difference between good science, with decent regulations, controlled experiments and attention for ethical questions; and bad science, which pays little attention to such issues. In the wake of this, scientist were eager to point out the distinction between human cloning and therapeutic cloning.

They succeeded. All over the world, strict laws were adopted concerning human cloning, settling that ethical controversy for the time being. At the same time, therapeutic cloning became less controversial. So a scientific controversy that gets a lot of media attention can actually be beneficial to the scientific community. But who knows how things could have turned out if it hadn’t been the Raëlians who made the first claim of creating a human clone?