Of Stem Cells and Fairy Tales

Scientists who have been telling Nancy Reagan that embryonic stem cell research could cure Alzheimer's now admit that it isn't true. Original Article

“PEOPLE NEED A FAIRY TALE,” Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss, explaining why scientists have allowed society to believe wrongly that stem cells are likely to effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

Or maybe Big Biotech needs access to taxpayer dollars to fund embryonic stem cell and cloning research—private investors generally give companies engaged in these endeavors a cold shoulder—and they are using famous grief stricken families like the Reagans to do their political lifting. If true, it demonstrates a depth of insincerity and disingenuousness that is as cruel as it is unjustifiable.

Here’s the story: Researchers have apparently known for some time that embryonic stem cells will not be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, because as two researchers told a Senate subcommittee in May, it is a “whole brain disease,” rather than a cellular disorder (such as Parkinson’s). This has generally been kept out of the news. But now, Washington Post correspondent Rick Weiss, has blown the lid off of the scam, reporting that while useful abstract information might be gleaned about Alzheimer’s through embryonic stem cell research, “stem cell experts confess . . . that of all the diseases that may be someday cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer’s is among the least likely to benefit.”

But people like Nancy Reagan have been allowed to believe otherwise, “a distortion” Weiss writes that “is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.” Why? The false story line helps generate public support for the biotech political agenda. As Weiss noted, “It [Nancy Reagan’s statement in support of ESCR] is the kind of advocacy that researchers have craved for years, and none wants to slow its momentum.”

This is a scandal. Misrepresentation by omission corrupts one of the primary purposes of science, which is to provide society objective information about the state of scientific knowledge without regard to the political consequences. Such data then serves as a foundation for crucial moral analysis about whether and how controversial fields of scientific inquiry should be regulated, a debate in which all are entitled to participate. But we can’t do so intelligently if we are not told the truth.

Some scientists have become alarmed by how politicized science has become. As Roger Pielke, Jr., Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado warned two years ago in the prestigious science journal Nature, “Many scientists [now] willingly adopt tactics of demagoguery and character assassination as well as, or even instead of, reasoned argument,” in promoting their views. This politicization of science, he worried, has led some scientists, “not to mention lawyers and those with commercial interests,” to “manipulate ‘facts’ to support” their advocacy, “undermining the scientific community’s ability to advise policy makers.” Consequently, he warned, science “is becoming yet another playing field for power politics, complete with the trappings of political spin and a win-at-all-costs attitude.”

Political science has gotten so bad that a few biotech advocates have resorted to outright misrepresentation. One of the most notorious of these cases occurred in Australia where Alan Trounson, a leading stem cell researcher (as reported by the Australian on August 27, 2002) admitted that he released a misleading video to “win over politicians” during that country’s Parliamentary debate over embryonic stem cell research. The video depicted a disabled rat regaining the ability to walk after being injected with embryonic stem cells—or so Trounson claimed. In actuality, the experiment used cadaveric fetal tissue from five-to-nine-week old aborted human fetuses, an altogether different approach that was irrelevant to the embryonic stem cell debate. Parliamentarians were furious, forcing a highly embarrassed Trounson to apologize abjectly.

If biotechnology advocates would allow a grieving widow to believe cruel untruths about the potential for stem cells to cure Alzheimer’s, what other fairy tales are they telling us—or allowing us to believe—to win the political debate? This is a crucial question, given that the decisions we make today will have a tremendous impact on the morality of the twenty-first century. The time has more than passed for the media to do some serious digging.

Wesley J. Smith, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His next book, Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World will be published in the fall.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.