September 26, 2022

“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 and Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania. George is a leading conservative. Caplan is the unofficial dean of progressive bioethics. 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.

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

Michael Cook
Arthur Caplan
bioethics
Robert P. George