Many scientists aspire to see their names grace the pages of top journals. They certainly do not expect their work to be featured on the front page of rushlimbaugh.com.
The conservative radio host once called science a “branch of the Democratic Party”, told his listeners that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists”, and has called climate-change science the biggest scam in the history of the world”. It is safe to say that if you are a scientist and your work appears on his website that it is not because Rush Limbaugh is a fan.
It all started when I was in college and decided to submit an article to the student-run Harvard Science Review. As with most student magazines (though surely not this publication!) nobody really read it, but it was a chance for science students to hone their writing skills, add an extracurricular to their resumes, and have something tangible to show Grandma over Christmas. Each issue was themed, and with the goal of drumming up interest the editors decided that a good theme for the Fall 2008 Issue would be Brave New World: Controversial Science.
The standard canon of eyebrow-raising research was already covered: Stem cells? Check. Climate engineering? Check. Embryonic screening? Surveillance technology? The possibility that turning on the Large Hadron Collider might create a black hole? Check, check, and check. A self-proclaimed science fiction fan I took it upon myself to write in this eponymous issue about a bit of technology that appeared in the original Huxley novel: the artificial womb.
Let me stop right here to say that, no, an artificial womb does not exist. As of yet, there is still no circumventing roughly nine months hosting a free riding fetus followed by childbirth (or convince someone else to do it) if you would like a child. Arguably the closest we have come to the artificial womb is a Japanese group that in the early ‘90s managed to keep a goat fetus alive in a tank of amniotic fluid for three weeks. At the time, news outlets heralded the arrival of the artificial womb for humans within a matter of years, yet here we are two decades later with no artificial womb in sight. The regulatory bodies that police in-vitro fertilization procedures do not allow developing embryos to be maintained in the lab past two weeks in the UK and less than that in the US. The research is also practically unfundable. I personally believe this technology is likely to remain science fiction for many years to come.
I went ahead and wrote about it anyway. I find the bioethics surrounding issues of fertility fascinating. As morally questionable as the development of the artificial womb may be, is it so much more clear-cut that affluent women are currently able to hire out the uteruses of the generally less fortunate for a fee? The article I turned in, “Artificial Wombs: Delivering on fertile promises”, not only inflicted groan-inducing puns on the reader but also suffered from a fair dose of sensationalism. That was what the editors wanted though, right? Besides, it did not matter because no one would read it (with the possible exception of Grandma) and I had real work that I should be doing instead of writing articles (still, in fact, true).
It turns out that Aldous Huxley borrowed his title Brave New World from a verse in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Aptly, by the summer after my article was published a storm was already brewing. A group of crackpots, ahem, I mean fellow Internet journalists had created a youtube video entitled “Postgenderism: The Genetic Singularity”. The video begins with amateurish computer-generated images of machines manufacturing humans. Next the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone is quoted about how we must rid ourselves of all sex differences in order to truly achieve equality of the sexes. This is followed by a sob story about a dystopian future in which genetic engineering and biotech companies control all reproduction. Then the video shows someone googling my last name and Harvard Science Review, a shot of our magazine cover, and quotes me twice.
The video has three parts and altogether is about 30 minutes of psychedelic, free-association, reactionary, anti-feminist, anti-science paranoia. This is, of course, the type of thing the Internet loves. The video was soon reposted all over the conservative blogosphere (most prominently on rushlimbaugh.com in the Summer of 2009). Now, I could claim that I am not responsible for others deliberately quoting me out of context in order to bolster their anti-science polemic, but that would be a cop-out.
The fact is that we are responsible, especially as scientists, for the honesty and clarity with which we present the state of scientific research to the public. There are those who are poised to pick apart any ambiguity in our words if it serves the point they are trying to make. You may know that you are a nobody in your field and that your opinions do not really matter in the grand scheme of things, but you cannot expect others to be so knowledgeable. We are not just talking crazies on the Internet either—a few years ago a friend of mine was quoted in the New York Times as “a legal scholar” despite being 25 years old and not yet having attended a single lecture of law school.
In the future when I get the chance to explain a piece of research to a non-scientist, I am taking that responsibility seriously. Most of what we as scientists publish in professional journals gets consumed by other scientists, because not only is it often locked behind pay-walls but also the terminology can be so technical as to obfuscate what has been discovered for a lay audience. On the other hand, this ridiculous video has been viewed 7,000 times. If even 1% of those who happened across it went ahead and read the source material my guess is that they learned something. As they say, all publicity is good publicity, and my guess is that this particular audience is one not often reached by scientists. I just hope that if my name ever gets featured again on rushlimbaugh.com that I have the wherewithal and the guts to write back.