“Dishonest” hype inflated stem cell hope, say bioethicists

It’s difficult to think of bioethicists who differ on more issues than Robert P. George, of Princeton (yes, there is a bioethicist at Princeton who is not Peter Singer) and Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania. George, a former member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, is a leading conservative who opposes embryonic stem cell research and abortion. Caplan is the unofficial dean of progressive bioethics and perhaps the most quoted bioethicist in the American media. But at a meeting organised by the Witherspoon Institute, a think tank at Princeton, they agreed on one thing: stem cell scientists told porkies about the promise of their research.

Caplan complained:

“Embryonic stem-cell research was completely overhyped, in terms of its promise. And people knew it at the time. I tried to say so myself at different times myself, even though I support embryonic stem-cell research. But this notion that people would be out of their wheelchairs within a year if we could just get embryonic stem-cell research funded was just ludicrous…

“Here’s an assertion that you hear all the time: ‘Stem-cell research will help Alzheimer’s.’ But stem cell research has no possibility of helping Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a gunk-up-the-brain disease, where every cell is affected. You can’t fix it by any sort of stem cell research. Model it? Maybe. Cure it? Never.”

Twisting the truth could backfire, George warned:

“…that’s the kind of dishonesty that threatens to alienate the public from science. Because even if the public buys it in the beginning, and the scientists win the political debate, when they can’t deliver on the promises they made, people’s faith in scientists—crucial for the funding of science—is placed in jeopardy.”

The key point on which the two celebrity bioethicists agreed was that facts do not speak for themselves and that science is not ethics. Ethical norms have to govern scientific inquiry and medical practice. As Caplan put it, “You can pile up evidence to the size of the Jungfrau, but if you don’t have norms, evidence does you no good. But some out there believe that the evidence speaks for itself.”

The dialogue between the two men is fascinating reading. It is a great contribution to the bioethics debate by Public Discourse, the Witherspoon Institute’s online journal. ~ Public Discourse, April 13

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