Friday, January 12, 2007

Stem Cell Humbuggery and Its Implications for California

Citizens of California and the American public overwhelmingly support embryonic stem cell research? Balderdash!

California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein and a host of others cite public opinion polls to support their mission, denouncing critics as opposing the will of the people. That position, however, is a bit of humbuggery – dangerous if uncritically believed by supporters of ESC research.

We have argued that support for embryonic stem cell research is quite soft and that the science is poorly understood by the public. Now comes additional evidence for that contention, including an analysis from a devout supporter.

We will discuss the major implications for CIRM a bit later, but first let's consider the thorough-going discussion of the polling data by Matthew Nisbet, a scholar at American University who has studied the subject for some time. In a piece on the website of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, he wrote:
"...(O)verwhelming public support is by no means a 'slam dunk' conclusion. In fact the best available polling data shows that while support for research has increased since 2001, support among American adults lingers at only slight majority levels. "
Nisbet continued:
"We are now going on year six of the stem cell debate, and despite major news attention to the issue, and tens of millions of dollars spent on advertising and communication campaigns across the country, the public still scores relatively low in both knowledge of the science and the politics involved."
Nisbet discussed how the wording of the polling questions shapes their results. He also examined how supporters and opponents frame the stem cell issue. While Nisbet did not discuss in detail the 2004 election that created the California stem cell agency, it was a masterpiece of framing. Prop. 71 became a matter of aiding the sick, including members of each voter's family, and boosting the California economy – short-circuiting the feeble efforts of opponents, who largely relied on faith-based moral arguments.
But Nisbet added:
"In recent years, opponents have also evolved in their message strategy, realizing that they can potentially impact the ambivalent citizen on the issue by pairing the moral interpretation with a 'public accountability' frame that defines funding as only benefiting 'special interest' biotechnology companies. The emphasis on the 'commodification of life' by 'corporate science' may resonate with segments of the public that might otherwise reject religiously-based appeals."
Rachael Laser of The Third Way, a "progressive" pro-stem cell think tank, wrote about the public "ambivalence" on ESC research on the group's blog, in addition to preparing a 9-page paper on the subject (which cited this blog as one of its sources).

She wrote:
"The real story is that the majority of Americans are concerned that our fast-paced scientific progress brings with it significant moral hazards. If you are a Third Way groupie (and really, who isn’t?), you will not be surprised that we call the folks in the middle of this debate the 'stem cell grays.'

"By contrast, the 'stem cell polars' are on the extremes: some think that stem cell research raises absolutely no moral concerns; others beleive that it is so morally offensive that they would not support it even in if they knew it could cure a family member of a dreaded disease.

"But to the stem cell grays, America is sort of like the crazy scientist in the lab – he might well be a genius, but he also might blow his lab sky-hight. This concern is also borne out in a series of Virginia Commonwealth University polls that reveal that 56% of Americans believe that science does not pay enough attention to moral values, and 51% also believe that “scientific research has created as many problems for society as solutions.”

"Until stem cell advocates address these types of concerns head-on, they will continue to battle risky margins or Pyrrhic victories."
Nesbit reinforced Laser's point:
"Given the multitude of competing issues in the world, and given limited time, motivation, and ability, it is in fact quite reasonable for the public to rely on heuristics such as partisanship or religious belief to make up their minds about a complicated issue such as stem cell research. This fact might not fit with democratic ideals or with the preferences of scientists, but it is human nature.

"Political strategists understand this, and it’s why they carefully frame their messages around simplistic interpretations of either 'stem cell research leads to cures,' or 'stem cell research is morally wrong,' pairing these messages with celebrity or religious spokespeople. However, for science advocates who care about winning the short term political battle to overturn Bush’s misguided stem cell policy, there is a delicate balance to be struck. As I have argued elsewhere, narrowly focusing on educating the public about the science or the 'facts' involved in the debate will not move public opinion nor be persuasive.

"In the stem cell debate, science advocates need to make sure that they are honest about the uncertainties in research, while simultaneously communicating the hope for important therapies and treatments. As I have argued in this column, accuracy in communication also means being honest about where public opinion stands.

"The opposition is watching, and when inevitable scandals in science erupt such as the Korean cloning affair, stem cell opponents are going to shower communication channels with claims that scientists are willing to go to any extreme to promote their self-interests, and that embryonic stem cell research is 'junk science.' In our sound bite culture, and especially when research opponents don’t play by the same rules, effectively engaging the public on stem cell research is a major challenge. Yet wisdom and precision is needed. At risk is public trust."
What does all this mean for CIRM? The agency faces a greater burden in maintaining public trust than most other state agencies because of its built-in conflicts of interests and its extraordinary independence from normal state oversight. Consequently its procedures must be perceived to be transparent and blemish-free. Perception is the hallmark here. Otherwise the institute can be easily besmirched as a giveaway program for biotech. A substantial public education effort concerning ESC research is needed to generate deeper and more sophisticated support for the science and medicine. Outreach, outreach and more outreach are the watchwords. That includes a much improved website and establishment of CIRM as the key resource for national and state media to consult on ESC matters. And a regular, strong effort in the state Capitol is necessary to maintain a friendly or at least a neutral environment.


  1. David,

    An absolutely spot-on analysis. Would that CIRM's leaders and the ICOC finally grasp it.

    John M. Simpson
    Stem Cell Project Director
    Foundation Taxpayer and Consumer Rights

  2. Anonymous3:15 PM

    According to these poll numbers, support for stem cell research is far from soft:

  3. Of "humbuggery," Professor Gilbert has strongly questioned the assumptions made by Baker in his pre-Prop 71 projection of patent royalties.

    Look here


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