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The New York Times’ New Hitman

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on December 5th, 2007

John Tierney has been writing for the New York Times for quite a while. But his most recent beat has entailed covering science and technology, where he has drunken the biohype kool-aid that's apparently on tap at the Times' watercooler.

Tierney's most recent example of reporting while intoxicated can be seen in his article on religion and cloning, where he not so subtly suggests that only Western religious zealots find fault with the idea of cloning human beings. His proof? The Far East. If people in Asia (who are largely non-Christian) don't have a problem with reproductive or research cloning, then, as Tierney's shoddy armchair sociology leads him to conclude, religion must be the key variable. And, the argument goes, since religion is by definition irrational, so too is any opposition to cloning a human. Tierney lays out his full manifesto in a blog post on the Times' website entitled "Who's Afraid of Soulless Scientism?"

This strawman argument pitting religion and science as irredeemably feuding entities both overestimates religion's role in how people think about reproductive cloning and underestimates the very real social harms that may come from it. One need not resort to a belief in God to think that human cloning is a bad idea.

First, any effort to clone a person is nothing short of unethical human experimentation. Reproductive cloning in animals typically leads to scores of stillborn and deformed clones before a viable one is born. And their surrogates often don't fare much better. Subjecting humans to this would be barbaric. Second, like research cloning, reproductive cloning relies heavily upon women's eggs and endangers those who undergo egg extraction - a painful and dangerous endeavor that has lead to serious complications and even some deaths. Third, reproductive cloning doesn't serve any reasonable medical purpose. Cloning a dead or living person might intrigue some, but this twisted fantasy is certainly outweighed by other dangers.

Thus, the problem isn't necessarily that science might lack a soul. It's that advocates like Tierney often lead it to lack decency.

Stem cell cheerleading and hand-wringing at The New York Times

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on December 4th, 2007

A few weeks ago, the New York Times provided a chunk of its front page to an enthusiastic news article that, in the words of bioethicist Erik Parens, “gave free advertising to three companies that already are or soon will be hawking whole-genome scans” – procedures that experts have described as a waste of money at best. Parens’ pointed remarks are titled, “It’s Time for the Times to Cut the Gene Hype.”

The Times has another biotech hype problem, too, this one on its editorial page, where over-the-top stem cell fervor long ago left thoughtful assessment behind.

In recent years, the nation's newspaper of record has made a habit of jumping in with a cheerleading editorial just about every time an embryonic stem cell researcher sneezes – a total of 58 editorials focused on stem cells since the summer of 2001.

But last month’s announcement that ordinary skin cells can be transformed into human pluripotent stem cells seemed to leave the Times editors at a loss for words. Nearly two weeks later – during which time dozens of other editorials, columns and commentaries appeared in news outlets around the world – a party line had developed, and a Times editorial toed it.

The editors expended most of their energies on Bush-bashing – a tempting pastime, to be sure – and making the case for continued research on IVF embryos – a point with which even many Republicans agree. The editorial was also saturated with the assumption that cloning-based stem cell research is still necessary, and that regulating stem cell research is not.

These are dubious assertions, but in keeping with the Times editors’ stem cell drumbeat.

Times editorials routinely conflate the distinction between stem cells derived from IVF embryos slated for discard – that is, all currently existing embryonic stem cells – and the so-far unsuccessful efforts to get stem cells from cloned human embryos – efforts that raise a number of non-embryo-related concerns, including the fact that they require thousands of women’s eggs.

When the Times editors do mention eggs, their tone shifts from cheerleading to hand-wringing. In September, for example, Biopolitical Times noted their lament about the “distressingly few women willing to donate their eggs for experiments at the frontiers of this promising science.” The editors consistently ignore or downplay the risks of egg extraction for women. In this Sunday’s piece, they refer to the need for “large quantity of human eggs” as “the vexing problem.”

The Times’ final thought in Sunday's editorial is the hope that “the next president will quickly jettison all restrictions on stem cell research.” All restrictions? Do they really want no rules at all? Based on a perusal of New York Times stem cell editorials from 1998-2007 – see this compiled list – that sorry conclusion seems inescapable.

Goozner and the Integrity in Science Project on Conflicts at the FDA

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on December 3rd, 2007

Like the National Academies, the Food and Drug Administration recently reviewed its conflict of interest policies. And once again, the Integrity in Science Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest offered a useful take on the findings:

When the original 2001 Vioxx study appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, its industry-funded authors dismissed data showing the drug raised the risk of heart attack by suggesting the comparison drug in the trial had been cardio-protective. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration did something similar with a study [PDF] of conflicts of interest on its advisory committees. The agency's press release said it would be difficult to create advisory committees free from conflicts of interest. The study, which cost taxpayers $60,000, according to, also claimed the advisors granted conflict-of-interest waivers had greater expertise than those without conflicts serving on the committees.

In fact, a Center for Science in the Public Interest reanalysis of the data contained in the report revealed that the FDA and the report should have drawn the opposite conclusions. The report examined four committees created during 2006 that granted 17 waivers. It took just 88 person-hours to identify 30 independent experts with all the expertise needed to fill those slots. Each of the 30 affirmatively declared in the medical literature that they had no conflicts of interest. Moreover, the expertise of those potential candidates, according to the report's own methodology, was greater than either the conflicted or unconflicted experts chosen to serve on the committees.

In a letter [Word Doc] sent today to Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, a coalition of consumer groups called on the FDA to reopen consideration of an agency proposal made last March that would forbid anyone who has financial ties with industry worth more than $50,000 from serving on advisory committees. It would also deny voting rights to advisers with lesser conflicts. "While the FDA's proposed guidance doesn't go far enough, this study shows that those barred or restricted under its limited provisions could be easily replaced," said Merrill Goozner, director of CSPI's Integrity in Science Project. Recently passed legislation only requires the agency to reduce total waivers by 20 percent over the next five years, which is well short of the total ban on conflicts of interest sought by consumer groups.

Merrill not only directs the project but has written a widely-praised book on the costs of drug development, and maintains his own blog, Gooznews. Both come recommended.

Defensive Ideologues Dig In

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on November 30th, 2007

Isaac Newton, responsible for some other great scientific advances in human history

In the wake of last week's development of patient-specific, pluripotent stem cell lines, I've read much pontification and punditry. Some is thoughtful, plenty is glib, and the occasional nugget is simply ridiculous. Here are three examples of the latter, all from entrenched embryonic stem cell research ideologues - with financial interests in the field - who are resorting to defensive posturing.

Leading the pack is Michael Werner, lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, who laments that these "scientific discoveries are being politicized." Yet his job is to do precisely that: He spins scientific developments in ways that encourage politicians and other policy makers to enact policies friendly towards the industry that signs his paycheck.

Next up is Geron CEO Thomas Okarma, who said: "Most of the people who are doing this work and make the claim that this is going to change the therapeutic field really know nothing about cell therapy." This sentence clearly points to the actual researchers who developed the new techniques, including James Thomson. So to Okarma, whose repeated promises of clinical trials for embryonic stem cell therapies make them seem as imminent as Chinese Democracy, the very scientist who first isolated human embryonic stem cells "really know[s] nothing about cell therapy?"

Finally, in an attempt to downplay the new methods of deriving stem cells without embryos, Okarma's BFF Hans Keirstead said that embryonic stem cells (i.e., the type on which he holds patents) are "are the greatest single scientific advance in human history." I'll let that statement speak for itself. (HT to Wesley Smith on Keirstead)

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