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Aliens, Clones, the News at Ten

CAVORTING BEASTIES

By Jonathan H. Esensten

What’s scarier than sects that worship space aliens and obsess over cloning humans? Perhaps it’s that a well-known science journalist took them seriously and blew the wild claims of a minor cult into the pages of the nation’s best newspapers.

Former ABC News science editor Michael A. Guillen late last month offered to test the claims of the Clonaid corporation that it had cloned a human baby. The company is associated with the “Raelians,” a cult whose leader believes he has communicated with extraterrestrials. Guillen offered to hire outside scientists to test whether the baby was, indeed, a clone. His very involvement, including an appearance with Clonaid’s chief Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, helped give the claims credence. Indeed, his imprimatur as an outside “expert” suddenly made the Raelian claim believable enough to make hundreds of newspapers and television news shows.

But on Monday, Guillen finally came to his senses and admitted that the Raelian sect might just be putting on “an elaborate hoax” in claiming to have produced a cloned baby. However, this admission came too late. Guillen’s shameless boosterism of so frightening a story over the past few weeks has embarrassed both journalists and scientists. He presided over a circus featuring the worst of both professions—a self-aggrandizing scientist playing God and a journalist who was not content to report the news, and instead decided to make it. In other words, if these people have any professional ethics, it would be hard to tell.

But what do professional ethics say about involving oneself in a story like this? It depends on whom you ask. One position was succinctly stated by Los Angeles Times reporter and former Crimson Managing Editor Joe Matthews ’94 at his old high school in Pasadena, Calif. last year. “There are no ethics in journalism,” Matthews claimed, a comment which made the local newspaper and caused some consternation among the students who thought journalists had an obligation to be members of their communities as well as reporters on it. But Matthews is no maverick among journalists. In 1987, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes claimed he would not warn American troops in a war zone if he knew they were walking into a trap. “They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover,” he said of the journalists who knew of the ambush. Wallace’s stolid “objectivity” gained him the enmity of government officials and demonstrated just how coldly doctrinaire journalists can be when faced with real ethical challenges. According to Wallace, the imperative is to get the story, period. Let those Americans die.

But Guillen didn’t get the story he was after, although he did get himself into quite a few stories. Moreover, Guillen’s involvement with the story was unethical because he both gave free publicity to a group attempting a dangerous and potentially deadly stunt and made himself a center of attention. His antics have reflected poorly on serious scientists who would never consider human reproductive cloning. The consequences could obstruct important science by giving opponents of all types of cloning a soft target. Both journalists and scientists stand to lose from Guillen’s willful gullibility.

For scientists who work on cloning, the stakes are particularly high. The continued furor in this country over non-reproductive cloning stems primarily from a mystical belief in “potential life” held by some bioethicists and abortion-obsessed politicians. The usual line of argument is that human embryos outside of a woman deserve protection as “potential” human beings. An apt analogy would be selling a lump of graphite for the price of a diamond because it has the potential (under extreme heat and pressure) to become a diamond. But by stirring up concern about human cloning, the Raelian controversy could catalyze restrictions on other types of cloning, all of which fall under the general name of “somatic cell nuclear transfer.”

Why did Guillen do it? Probably not because he thought the story was true. Guillen—who was once a teaching fellow at Harvard—should know better. The claim by Boisselier that Clonaid had produced a human clone is about as believable as the Raelians’ previous pronouncements that its leader communicated with extraterrestrials. The company had no prior experience with cloning, and the published literature shows that success in cloning mammals is extremely rare. Cloning a human requires using genetic information stored in a mature cell from an adult. But such cells, which are specialized for specific tasks, have lost much of their ability to direct the development of a normal human. In cloned mice, for example, five percent of all genes are turned on and off improperly.

Why did Guillen turn the claims of a cult into a spectacle? It could have been greed. Or ambition. Or maybe he just wanted to get his name in the newspaper. Regardless, his antics have overturned the assumption that science journalists avoid pseudo-science and wild, unsubstantiated claims. If journalism has room for ethical rules besides “getting the story,” the second should be “intervene only in matters of life and death” and the third “remain skeptical of nutcases.” Unfortunately, the gullible Mr. Guillen fails on all counts.

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears regularly.

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