The Book Club

Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple

Dear Chris:

Well, as you have done in each of your books, you manage to make the big picture seem enticing and fearsome in equal measure. You are right, of course, that few people have heard of synthetic biology or geo-engineering, and fewer still have given any thought to the possible impact (good or bad) of either. Revolutionary technologies—the telegraph, the train, the Internet—often appear before they are widely understood or even recognized, only to be accepted later when they prove useful. Soon, we will be able to manufacture in one vat enough artemisinin—the most important malaria medication—to supply the world. One vat. Nonetheless, I think we both know this technology will seem different and more alarming to many people than the Internet or a train. And that is entirely appropriate We shouldn’t ask people to accept the creation of new life forms from scratch simply because scientists (and people like us) say the new technology is useful. So what do we do? There are a few approaches: First, we ought to have something like the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA (PDF), so as to establish some ground rules and make sure researchers in the field agree to them. But that won’t be enough.

Here is where I disagree, and you can call me a blind optimist if you like: I believe President Obama can be convinced to convene a national digital town meeting on this subject. Maybe more than one. Why not? If he can hold town meetings on the economic crisis that threatens our prosperity, certainly he can be made to understand that a similar approach might be useful in addressing the risks and rewards of altering life in the most fundamental ways. This guy is not George W. Bush. Honestly, I think we should harp on this until people in the White House respond. (By we I mean as many scientists, environmentalists, journalists, and yes, business leaders as we can find. We don’t all have to share the same philosophy to agree that the problem should be discussed.) Obama has selected a remarkable group of scientists to serve in his administration, and I just have to believe the urgency of these issues will not be lost on him. It is what I think he likes to call a “teachable moment,” if there ever was one.

Yes, we must also deploy scientists more fully and frequently to help explain the value of what they do for us. Many of the most eloquent people I have ever met work in lab coats every day. But that approach, too, has limits. Americans simply don’t listen to what scientists have to say anymore. That is one of the most damaging consequences of denialism.

I disagree even more strongly on the issue of whether we’re wasting taxpayer money with studies of dietary supplements. I have often heard the argument that since so many people are using them—half of all American adults by most counts—we ought to at least try to compare vitamins and supplements with more conventional therapies in standard, placebo controlled trials. I am in no way suggesting we stop testing widely used substances. But why do we need an entire center at the National Institutes of Health to do that? In the nearly 10 years of its existence, what single therapy was ever shown to be effective by researchers at the National Center for Complementary * and Alternative Medicine? What have those billion dollars gotten us? If we want to study the effects of echinacea, say, or St. John’s wort, why can’t we do that at one of 26 other centers of the National Institutes of Health? If echinacea is supposed to cure colds, let the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease look into it. Wouldn’t the best place to examine the proposition that St. John’s wort can treat depression be the National Institute of Mental Health?

By placing the NCCAM on the Bethesda campus of America’s most prestigious scientific research center, the government has given alternative medicine credibility it simply doesn’t deserve. And that makes it even easier for people to embrace their fantasies and turn away from scientific fact.

This may seem terribly self-involved, but I look to journalism, and particularly science writers, to help educate Americans. And you know what, I can see it happening, despite the fact that science writers, like other specialists, are losing jobs at traditional media outlets. I started to write about science and medicine at the Washington Post, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. (Before that, I was sent to cover the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger because I was new enough to have no other role of significance. Editors would not have sacrificed a political reporter for some accident in space.) There were some great medical reporters, like my old boss at the Post, Boyce Rensberger, and the man who now runs the shop at your current gig, Phil Hilts. But they were truly exceptions. Science writing 25 years ago was a backwater, for geeks who either couldn’t make it on the White House beat or didn’t know enough to want to. (I like to think I am in the latter category.)

I would be the last person to minimize the problems we face in this profession. Newspapers and magazines are vanishing. But science writers are not. In fact, they are becoming so adept and varied that I hardly have time to read Gawker anymore. There are dozens of remarkable blogs, like yours. I can’t think of a single issue that is covered in greater depth on the Internet, or with more sophistication. It’s a struggle and will continue to be one, but I really don’t think we can lose. I have always been with Milton, at least when it comes to the value of the truth: “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

The guy was on to something and I know you agree. In any case, it’s been a pleasure and I look forward to arguing again soon.


Correction, Nov. 9, 2009: This article originally referred to the “National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine,” implying, incorrectly, that the therapies in question would be flattering to patients or offered free of charge. In fact, it’s called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (Return to the corrected sentence.)