How Bold Predictions Hurt Science

  • Date: 09/11/09

how-bold-predictions-hurt-science-1A South Korean postage stamp issued in 2005 depicts a scene that is reminiscent of the iconic human evolution cartoon in which a stooping ape evolves, in six or so steps, into an upright, bipedal Homo sapiens. It shows a paraplegic man climbing slowly out of his wheelchair, standing up straight, and then performing a giant leap of celebration. Placed next to an image of an ovum undergoing the technique of nuclear transfer, the message was clear: Thanks to the groundbreaking publications of Hwang Woo-Suk, therapeutic cloning was a medical miracle that had as good as happened. The trouble is, it hadn’t happened. And nearly 4 years on, it still hasn’t.

South Korea was understandably proud of Hwang’s achievements and, like the rest of the world, excited by his claims and those of researchers worldwide that his human embryonic stem cell (hESC) techniques were set to provide therapies for not only spinal injuries, but Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a host of other degenerative diseases.

The rest is history. By January 2006, it was clear that Hwang’s pioneering papers had been fabricated and that the eleven individualized human stem cell lines he claimed to have established did not exist. Hwang left Seoul National University and was subject to criminal investigation, the stamp was withdrawn from circulation, and the world still awaits approval for the first hESC therapeutic application.

It can sometimes feel as if cures for diseases are forever 10 years off, while nuclear fusion seems to have been 50 years away from practical reality for about half a century now.

It doesn’t take anything so extreme as scientific fraud to scupper what may have seemed, at the time, to be a well-grounded scientific prediction. At its most enthusiastic, science has always been prone to promise rather more, and sooner, than it has managed to deliver. It can sometimes feel as if cures for diseases are forever 10 years off, while nuclear fusion seems to have been 50 years away from practical reality for about half a century now. It might be easy to look back and laugh at claims that eugenics would spell the end for not only heritable diseases, but also of social problems such as vagrancy and crime, but a 1989 Science editorial’s claim during the run-up to the human genome project that the new genetics could help reduce homelessness by tackling mental illness is perhaps fresh enough to make biologists’ toes curl with embarrassment.

Meanwhile, in bleaker moments, scientific authorities have predicted the end of the world and civilization as we know them at the hand of pandemics or environmental catastrophe. And yet we are still here, in defiance of Thomas Malthus’s eighteenth-century warnings about overpopulation and ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s prophesy in his 1968 book The Population Bomb that “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

Of course, scientists have a strong incentive to make bold predictions—namely, to obtain funding, influence, and high-profile publications. But while few will be disappointed when worst-case forecasts fail to materialize, unfulfilled predictions—of which we’re seeing more and more—can be a blow for patients, policy makers, and for the reputation of science itself.

Volume 23 | Issue 11 | Page 28

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