Chatting With Little Green Men

I have just cloned a baby. To be precise, I found some sticks and stones in my back yard, crushed them with my coffee grinder, threw them in a cauldron and added eye of newt and toe of frog. Then I boiled everything down, nurtured it for nine months in a test tube and — Voila! — a cloned baby. I would now like to be interviewed simultaneously on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox, please, so that I can hawk my book about cloning and make a million dollars to support my future scientific research.

You don’t take me seriously? Why not? The Raelians, a cult whose leader claims to communicate with extraterrestrials, whose Web site features pictures of flying saucers and whose members believe that human beings are clones of space aliens, received utterly serious treatment when they claimed to have cloned two babies. This newspaper published a photograph of the group’s leading “scientist,” one Brigitte Boisselier, on its front page. Leading scientists — real scientists, at real universities — were asked for their reactions by leading newspapers and, unsmilingly, gave them. CNN, like many other television stations, aired a long, deadly earnest interview with Boisselier. Here’s an excerpt:

CNN: What has happened to the independent lab tests that were supposed to be conducted . . . when you announced the findings of this alleged first birth?

BOISSELIER: So those tests have been postponed. They are still possible and I hope they will happen. . . .

CNN: When would those tests take place involving the second baby?

BOISSELIER: I wish I could give you a date, but what I’m telling you is that I am the one pushing for this to happen and I’m pushing hard. But at the same time, I am a human being and a mother and I don’t want these parents to be — to have their lives completely destroyed by that, so I’m careful.

Now the journalist charged by the Raelians with the task of confirming their claims has discovered — surprise! — that it all may be an elaborate hoax. Or perhaps it’s all an elaborate lesson about how little the media — and everyone else — know about science these days, and how easily, therefore, we are gulled into reporting and reading non-stories as if they had some scientific, social or any other kind of validity.

But the ludicrously straight treatment of the Raelians is only half the story. The other half is the shock and consternation caused when actual scientific achievements are sprung on a totally unprepared public. The appearance of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was a perfect example. None of the hundreds of experiments that led up to her birth had caused much comment. No one, aside from the cognoscenti, perused the scientific journals that described them.

The result: shock, horror and demands for congressional action — and expect more of the same. The public is no better prepared for the next wave of genetic breakthroughs, or indeed for any scientific breakthroughs. The emergence of the new interdisciplinary field of bioethics won’t solve the problem either. If the public needs “experts” in order to distinguish between a space alien cult and a legitimate scientific institute, then the problem lies elsewhere. Indeed, there was something disturbing about the sight of the bioethicists — grown-ups, with advanced degrees — being hauled out last weekend to explain, patiently, what was wrong with the Raelian theory of alien cloning.

There is no substitute for knowledge, nothing that can replace scientific literacy. Scientists need to bend over backward to explain their work in whatever ways they can. Given the gap that has developed between the average graduate of a high school chemistry class and the average genetic scientist, it may also be time to broaden what we mean by “liberal arts education” to include more science — a lot more science. People should not be allowed to graduate from college — or to conduct television interviews — unless they feel intuitive skepticism about a group whose leader has close personal ties to little green men from outer space.

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