Science, Ethics and the Media

There has been a noticeable shift over the past fifty years concerning those whom society, and the media, look to as authority figures, as sources of truth and values. For centuries pastors and priests were seen as sources of wisdom and truth. Parents, policemen and even politicians were also accorded due respect over the years.

All that has changed however, and these groups have now lost much of their respect and authority. Instead they are regularly criticised, maligned and vilified by society in general and the media in particular (admittedly, some of it being deserved).

One new group however has claimed the pedestal of authority. Scientists have become the new priests in a secular society, and are accorded lavish respect and reverence. This is especially the case with the media. Put on a white lab coat, and the media treats you with kid gloves. In fact, many in the media refuse to ask the proper hard questions of scientists that they routinely do of politicians, religious leaders and other former authority figures. Scientists make their pronouncements, and the media simply repeats them in parrot-like fashion.

This can especially be seen in the recent debates about cloning and stem cell research. Scientists and those from the bio-tech industry have essentially been given a free run by the media, subject to very little scrutiny or discernment. Big bio-tech tells us we need embryos to experiment on, and the media uncritically agrees. And when others try to give an alternative viewpoint, they are often dismissed as religious nuts.

A good example of this occurred on 60 Minutes several months ago. In the ads leading up to the Sunday night segment, the debate on stem cell research was pitched as a clash between Superman and the Catholic Church. That is, wheelchair-bound actor Christopher Reeve (who played Superman) was to debate Catholic bio-ethicist Dr Nick Tonti-Filippini.

Mr Reeve, a quadriplegic since a horse riding accident, has become a keen advocate of embryonic stem cell research. He made an emotional appeal for the research, arguing that cures for him and others were potentially just around the corner.

Reeve was portrayed as a victim of uncaring religious bigots, while Dr Tonti-Filippini, who opposed destructive embryonic research, was portrayed as the ogre. The whole debate was pitched as an uncaring Catholic church, with its outdated and obtuse moral platitudes, versus genuine human need.

Indeed, the debate appeared to be one between archaic religion and progressive science. Thus you had Catholic ethicists not only pitted against suffering celebrities, but you had them pitted against scientists like embryonic stem-cell advocate Dr Alan Trounson of the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development.

Now while Dr Tonti-Filippini is just as capable a debater on the scientific and academic levels as Dr Trounson, 60 Minutes portrayed him as a religious fundamentalist standing in the way of science and progress. Or as Mr Reeve kept saying, he is part of the “lunatic fringe”. (In this, Mr Reeve resorted to name calling instead of rational argument, just as Melbourne IVF specialist Dr John McBain recently resorted to calling his opponents the “local Taliban” and “Catholic conservatives”.)

But aside from the way the media so often plays the sectarian card, the real problem in the stem cell debate is that the media often does not give us all the facts. It deliberately covers up or obscures certain key issues. Not once during the 60 Minutes debate, for example, were we informed that the issue is not about whether we should use stem cells to help cure diseases. What the real debate is about is the source of those stem cells. Should they come from human embryos or from other sources?

The truth is, adult stem cells have three major advantages over embryonic stem cells: 1) They do not require the destruction of an embryo; 2) They avoid the problem of immunological rejection; and 3) They already have a proven track record in treating patients, whereas embryonic stem cells do not.

But the 60 Minutes segment did not mention adult stem cells once throughout the entire debate. And other sections of the media are equally guilty. For example, almost on a weekly basis, reports come out about the success of adult stem cell treatments. But the media often does not inform us about the source of the stem cells. Thus the public is misled and confused about the issue.

How much of this is due to sloppy journalism or deliberate deception is unclear. But what is clear is the media needs to treat science in a much more accountable fashion. And the media itself needs to become more accountable and responsible to the public it claims to serve.

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