The Globe and Mail (Canada), Jan. 9, 2003 (Column, Margaret Wente)
Okay, so who knew? It could have happened. There might have been a baby. Just because these people have a UFO theme park and believe the human race is descended from aliens from outer space doesn’t mean they’re not legit. After all, didn’t someone clone a sheep? Doesn’t everyone clone embryos already? Anyone who has a petri dish could probably clone a baby. You can’t rule it out, any more than you can rule out the possibility that I am the living reincarnation of Princess Aura, daughter of Ming the Merciless.
It’s hard to pick the most cringe-making moment of this story, which proved decisively that journalists can’t distinguish science from science fiction. Was it when Anna Maria Tremonti, a woman of impeccable authority, attempted to interview the chief Raelian on the CBC? Was it the fetching outfits of Brigitte Boisselier, the PhD who looks like a dominatrix in a whorehouse? Was it Connie Chung’s session with Rael on CNN, when he insisted that she address him as “His Holiness”? And she did?
All I know is that, speaking as a journalist, I feel like reaching for the Kool-Aid.
Rael, a.k.a. Claude Vorilhon, is a former car-racing writer who was briefly captured by extraterrestrials in 1973. He has a knack for getting headlines. His first coup came when he announced a plan to build an embassy for space aliens in Jerusalem. His next came in 1997, when he launched an outfit known as Clonaid. In his book, Yes to Human Cloning, published by the Raelian Foundation in 2001, he bragged, “For a minimal investment of $3,000, it got us media coverage worth more than $15-million . . . I am still laughing.”
Clonaid set up shop in an abandoned high school in Nitro, W.V. An FDA official told The New York Times that when they investigated, they found insects flying through the open windows and a few cow ovaries obtained from a nearby slaughterhouse. But the equipment was state-of-the-art. It had been purchased by a grieving father named Mark Hunt, whose 10-month-old son had died of heart disease. The Raelians had told him they could clone the dead baby.
Mr. Hunt, who is a lawyer, proved once again that a fancy education is no cure for gullibility. He and his wife forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars before coming to the conclusion that they’d been cynically duped.
Before that, however, the world had heard the joyous news. In February of 2001, the ABC news show 20/20 told viewers that Clonaid was on the verge of success. “Ready or not, the technology is on its way,” declared science editor was going to personally oversee the DNA test that would prove the cloned baby was for real, until the parents, according to Rael, decided that DNA testing was not a good idea at this time, and Mr. Guillen was forced to admit that the story might be “an elaborate hoax.”
It may be relevant at this point to note that most journalists flunked high-school chemistry. No wonder they put such touching faith in Mr. Guillen, who, it turns out, also has a “Pigasus” award, bestowed on him in 1997 by fraud-buster James Randi for his “indiscriminate promotion of pseudoscience and quackery.” (The award is a pig with wings.) “He has supported every bit of pseudoscience that’s come along,” Mr. Randi told The Washington Post. “Scientology was just fine with him. . . . To put him in charge of this kind of thing is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.”
Oh, well. It was a slow news week. A big story the day after Christmas is like manna from heaven. CNN led with it all day, triggering a worldwide feedback loop, and before you could say “due diligence” the story was laundered into respectability. No doubt it also did wonders for the Raelians’ recruiting drive. A belief system that combines flying saucers and cosmic orgasms has a certain appeal.
So what’s the harm in a little junk science? After all, Raelians are a nice break from weapons of mass destruction. But serious scientists worry that the story has dealt a blow to a crucially important ethical debate.
At the very least, they will have to spend time mending fences with alarmed grant-givers and a muddled public. “I’m really worried about a backlash,” said Rudolf Jaenisch, a leading research-cloning expert. “These [Raelian] people are really poison.”
Meantime, we journalists don’t have much reputation to lose. But still. “Everybody associated with the media became a little less dignified,” says Orville Schell, the dean of Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism.
I feel like going home and crawling under the bed. Please pass the Kool-Aid.