Lessons in picking the top science story

There is nothing like the New Year to make one look back over the past year with bright and sometimes teary eyes. Everyone has been coming up with their top 10, or 25, or 100 lists of the most science important stories of 2003.

It was the disintegration of the Space shuttle Columbia, opined Discover magazine. We beg to differ, responded the distinguished scientific publication, Science. It was the WMAP probe that mapped the size and shape of the universe, not to mention calculated that it is exactly 13.7 billion years old — plus or minus 137 million years. Scientific American made a nod to SARS as being one of, if not the, biggest story of the year.

Votes in various venues were also cast for the decimation of the ocean’s fish, a looming species holocaust, cloning horses, and the fact that the old wonder drug aspirin might prevent cancer.

Interesting choices, but all clearly missed what was the most ironical, if not the most important, story of the year.

It was something that in January was touted as one of the revolutions of our times but which by December almost didn’t exist as a story of any kind.

Remember those spacey Raelians from Quebec who swore out both sides of their mouths in 2002 that they had cloned one, and then maybe 20, human babies? Remember how they and their company, Clonaid, were going to usher in the millennium of human cloning, and in so doing force governments everywhere to confront the question of whether twinning yourself was legal or not.

The revolution was announced, and then, seemingly, the revolutionaries ran away. Please, please let me swab DNA from the mouths of mother and baby, begged a distinguished Dutch scientist when it was reported that one of the babies lived near Amsterdam. Put a motorcycle helmet on the mother; mask the baby; I just want the DNA to prove you did what you said you did.

Silence was the Raelians response, and a publication void in which they produced absolutely no credible evidence whatsoever of having done anything clonish. The pose was akin to the Wright brothers’ announcing that they could fly and then refusing to let anyone else observe either the first or future flights.

Then, in the middle of the year one scientific paper came out that detailed just how hard it was to clone primates — the general family that humans, apes, monkeys, chimps belong to.

This was important because the initial reason to give the Raelians even a modicum of credibility was because, while cloning cows and sheep and rat and mice wasn’t easy, it also was not impossibly difficult.

”On paper, you only need a garage laboratory and an IVF specialist and a vet who has worked on cloning animals,” the same Dutch scientist said.

But humans, and those like us, seemed designed by nature to foil the cloner’s hand. Thirty-three rhesus monkey embryo transplants produced exactly zero success. And when they looked carefully, U.S. scientists found so many basic biological differences between primates and more readily cloned species that they believed cloning in primates ”may prove difficult — and reproductive cloning unachievable.”

Consequently, not only did the Raelians have us all on, and in the process make not a few people in the media look like chumps, but all the subsequent legal sturm und drang about prohibiting human reproductive cloning might also amount to a nothingness. In the end, laws against human cloning might be akin to laws against time travel without wearing a seatbelt, or speeding up the speed of light.

One moral to all this is that when it comes to technological change you have to wait for things to happen before you decide how you are going to respond to them.

The theoretical breakthrough, and all the theoretical problems and benefits they might present, could be nothing by a fantasy, and an illusion. Worthy science, as a worthy life, is essentially about what is, and not about what may never be.

But there was also a second lesson. The absolute bone and marrow of science is evidence, not claim, not press conference, not secret cabal.

To have believed Raelian pseudo-science without a scintilla of data, tells us just how little we appreciated the process they claimed to have been using. And that was big news in 2003 and likely far beyond.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Globe and Mail, Canada
Jan. 12, 2004
Stephen Strauss

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 13, 2004.
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