Saturday, December 24, 2005

Faux Science

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the expression, "willing suspension of disbelief," by which readers suspend their critical faculties and accept the reality of a poem or story, even if it is irreal in terms of the natural world, inconsistent, fantastic, in order not only to enjoy it but also to derive from it, if it be art as opposed to crap, some insight into the human condition. The physical universe is the putative world of science, wherein events, forces, physical objects--reality--can be explained in terms of natural phenomena, and those explanations can be verified through experimentation. Scientists like to say that science is self-correcting, that if work can't be replicated, it will be cast out.

Yet, many scientists seem collectively to have suspended their disbelief when it came to Hwang Woo Suk's bold claims, beginning in 2004, of having cloned a human embryo, then of creating 11 patient-specific lines of cloned embryos, and finally of cloning a dog. A top geneticist told me years ago that dogs and humans were perhaps the most difficult animals to clone, so Hwang's accomplishments represented technical tours de force. According to his overheated claims, which both echoed and amplified those of other stem cell researchers, science journalists, patient advocacy groups, and the scientific journals that published his work, his accomplishments threw open the doors for producing stem cells for curing Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, and other ailments. With this therapeutic cloning technology he was going to use the patients own genetic material to produce stem cells that would replace what had failed or vanished. Because they were derived from the patient, the new cells would not be rejected, the theory goes.

Problem was, as I've said before and the press has widely reported, Hwang faked his results at least for the May-June 2005 paper and, based on evidence gleaned from that, for the 2004 embryo cloning and dog cloning, as well, and he did so by taking advantage of Western, especially American, scientists' "willing suspension of disbelief." In short, they believe not only in the efficacy of therapeutic cloning but also in the need for America to stay in front of the field. In fact, as Rick Weiss pointed out in the December 24, Washington Post, a chief worry is that exposure of Hwang will tigger demands for increased regulation of research and make less likely a weakening of federal limitations on embryonic research. As if to prove the point, for Christmas, the Post ran a story by Rob Stein on how the scandal had already spurred calls for greater oversight.

I'm interested here in the apparent lack of due diligence by scientists and journal editors. Nicholas Wade reports in the Christmas New York Times that Nature did not seek data that would have conclusively proved--nor data that would have disproved--Snuppy a clone, before announcing the dog's arrival. Hwang was smart: by the time he'd popped Snuppy on Nature, it had twice lost out to archrival, Science, and although the Nature editors would deny it, I have to think they were primed for a headline paper. Data presented for the second paper in Science, at the request of reviewers was problematic, it turns out, but inexplicably neither Science nor its reviewers flagged the problems at the time. The journals say it is not their role to police scientists, but surely editors and reviewers should demand the data--all of it--and if it can't be produced or it's not right, they shouldn't run the paper. As the situation now stands, it appears that fact checkers at a top-flight magazine are more thorough than editors and reviewers at Science and Nature, who seem all too willing to suspend their disbelief for members of the club whose results they approve.

Equally inexplicable is how scientists from around the world could have visited Hwang's lab in Seoul to learn his efficient cloning technique and not seen the famous stem cell lines, not been able to replicate Hwang's results (the sine qua non of experimental science), and, despite that, not raised an alarm.

The big unspoken explanation for all of this is money, the corrupting power of money on science. Stem cells, therapeutic cloning, genomics--nearly all biology is promoted on the promise of curing some degenerative disease or congenital defect or cancer. The Bushies, backed by the "right to death by execution" crowd have stymied federally funded stem cell research, but other countries, states like California, and industry are forging ahead. The goal often appears more to patent and cash in than to elucidate fundamental biological processes. That requires proprietary information, the antithesis of what science demands.

It's inconceivable that something as fundamental as, for example, Newton's second law (f=ma) would be copyrighted or patented, so that anyone applying it would have to pay royalties. Yet businesses, institutions, and groups are permitted to patent individual genes. An army of scientists and their institutions would deny it, but the result is Hwang Woo Suk.

No comments: