Science and Speculation
Scientist Seeks Woman to Give Birth Neanderthal Baby
In an interview with Der Spiegel Magazine last month, Dr George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard University, claimed that now that the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced, a Neanderthal could be cloned using human stem cells, and that a human woman could serve as a surrogate mother.
This fascinating suggestion was repeated in a number of different media outlets. It became a topic of discussion on various social media sites. After all, it does have important ethical implications.
However, a number of headlines appeared to indicate that Dr Church was actually seeking a woman to give birth to a Neanderthal RIGHT NOW. In some articles, this idea went beyond the headline and infiltrated the article itself, so that Dr Church’s musings became an “ambitious plan”.
Thus, with a few words, Dr Church became transformed from a brilliant scientist – one who helped to initiate the human genome project – into a crackpot.
As would be expected, this made Dr Church upset.
Nobody likes to have their words misinterpreted, especially when it makes them seem like a nut.
Dr Church got into trouble because he was speculating, but his words were interpreted as though they were statements of fact.
We live in a world where people want their information fast. They get their news via Tweets and soundbites.
Web designers are advised to make their sites as skimmable as possible.
Unfortunately, this means that it becomes difficult for scientists, and others to present complicated ideas to a mass audience. It becomes harder for speculation to be recognized as speculation.
Skimming means that people miss phrases like “What if”. Long, conditional sentences become misinterpreted because people don’t take the time to figure out exactly what those sentences mean.
In fact, I’ve seen people who write about science endure criticism for speculating because they were “spreading ideas that weren’t true” – sometimes the critics have been scientists or people who share an interest in science.
I’ve seen writers who have speculated be criticized for “not understanding the science”, when it was clear to me that they did understand.
A while back, I wrote an article in which I asked what would happen if scientists could turn gay people straight – I was looking at the philosophical implications of this possibility. I stated in the article that nobody has ever been able to change anyone’s sexual preference. In my mind, this was obviously a thought experiment.
Nevertheless, I was criticized because “I might give homophobes wrong ideas”.
Do scientists and people who write about science have a responsibility to refrain from speculating? Should Dr Church have restricted his interview to speaking about the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and allowed discussions of Neanderthal cloning to be found only in books clearly labeled Science Fiction?
To me, the beauty of science is that it allows me to speculate. I read about an exoplanet in a star’s habitable zone and I imagine what intelligent life would be like in another section of the universe – even though as of yet there is no proof that life, let alone intelligent life, exists anywhere other than our planet.
I want to know about this (imaginary) Neanderthal child with a human mother. Does the child learn to speak, go to school, have friends?
I want scientists to be able to discuss their wildest ideas without having to worry about being misunderstood.