Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Stem Cells, Anonymous Commentary and Silence Dogood

What do Benjamin Franklin and Mrs. Silence Dogood have to do with the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency?

Very little -- directly -- is one answer. The other answer is that Ben and the publicly spirited Mrs. Dogood had a lot to do with the publication of strong views that run afoul of the established order.
Ben Franklin, Getty Images
Silence Dogood, you see, was a pen name for Ben early in his career. He used it successfully to get his thoughts into print. It made Franklin, as a writer, anonymous -- thus overcoming the barrier that use of his own name posed.

All of which raises the topic of the day -- publication of anonymous comments concerning articles on the California Stem Cell Report -- more particularly the comment this morning on the ViaCyte item earlier this week.

In advance of today's publication of the comment, ViaCyte was offered, in the spirit of fairness, an opportunity to respond to the anonymous writer. Declining on behalf of the San Diego company was Jessica Yingling, president of Little Dog Communications Inc., of San Diego. She also asked whether “it is normal to have comments like this.”

My email reply to her earlier this week said, yes, it is relatively common to permit anonymous comments on the California Stem Cell Report. As I replied, I thought others were likely to have similar questions. Thus this piece came about.

But first, it is helpful to understand just how anonymous comments work on Blogger, the Google-owned platform for the California Stem Cell Report.

Google allows readers, at the option of the blog publisher, to make comments anonymously. Google controls the method that protects the anonymity of the writer. When I receive an anonymous comment, I do not and cannot know the names of persons who file them. But I do moderate them.

I permit anonymous comments because of the nature of the scientific community, the stem cell agency and the biotech industry. Of particular importance is that the agency is, in fact, a state government body and is spending public money. However, it is not answerable to the governor or the legislature because of the terms of the ballot measure that created it, Prop. 71. That is not the case for nearly all other state agencies. Currently the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), also functions almost invisibly with little attention from any media, mainstream or otherwise.

Over the past 13 years of writing about this rather large source of public funding for stem cell research, I have found that many persons in the field are reluctant to comment with complete candor, sometimes because it may appear to others in the field that their comments are unseemly. In other cases, people in the field are simply afraid of possible financial or professional repercussions if they make comments that some may find objectionable, no matter how well founded. If anonymous comments were barred entirely, it would mean a loss of a certain perspective about the agency and sometimes useful information about how the stem cell industry and the agency works. That said, not all anonymous comments satisfy that criteria.

I do not publish all anonymous comments. Some have been libelous. A few have been deranged. Others are nothing more than spam.

Reasonable people can and do differ about the use of anonymous comments on blogs or in the mainstream media, which are very different animals. During my decades of covering and editing news as well as directing coverage, use of anonymous sources has always been a matter of debate and controversy. I acknowledge that some, perhaps many, anonymous writers may be grinding a particular axe. On the other hand, the targets of such comments are not always forthright. It is not necessarily in their interests to disclose bad news. The media can also be easily manipulated by "official" sources, something I have seen occur widely over the past five decades.

Indeed, the backers of Prop. 71 in 2004 were less than forthright during ballot campaign that created the stem cell agency. But such is the nature of such political activities.

Ben Franklin was an adroit politician as well as a clever writer and advocate. He also hid his identity under many pen names during his life in the 18th century. Today I have no doubt that Silence Dogood would have no difficulties with our judicious posting of anonymous comments on the California Stem Cell Report.

For those of you would like to comment on this topic, please feel free. Just click on the word “comments” at the end of this item. Perhaps we will hear from some of Mrs. Dogood’s descendants.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:22 AM

    Well put. The intersection of politics and science is very messy and given the aura of "crazy scientists in white lab coats" that is propagated for the public, can put them at a certain disadvantage in a public arena. In the culture of media driven decision making, I find the portrayal of scientists much of an unfortunate caricature. However, when the chips fall, and people get sick, they run to the medical authorities for an instant fix. The current news cycle is all about opioids. The first question may be--who is in charge of off-label use and use for a long term predicament when many of these are studied in the order of 6 weeks in clinical trials prior to approval? Where does the culpability fall? Science is about making adjustments based on new evidence and technology--if we are mired in dogma and ego and unable to make corrections based on overwhelming evidence, it's a disservice. What also needs to be clearly portrayed to lay public is that science is about long term objectives--not short term quarterly gains at the expense of so much other. Now that may reflect what we see with Venture Capital groups and their limited partners.