Scientists want to replace "cloning" with more confusing terms, raise approval

New Scientist is reporting on a movement among some scientists to replace the word "cloning" with "somatic cell nuclear transfer":

Don't say cloning, say somatic cell nuclear transfer. That at least is the view of biologists who want the term to be used instead of "therapeutic cloning" to describe the technique that produces cloned embryos from which stem cells can then be isolated. This, they argue, will help to distinguish it from attempts to clone a human being.

But will it? Kathy Hudson and her colleagues at the Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC asked more than 2000 Americans whether they approved of deriving stem cells from embryos produced by cloning. For half of the sample they used the term "SCNT" instead of "cloning", and this raised approval ratings from 29 per cent to 46 per cent, Hudson told a meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in New Orleans last week.

SCNT would also be used in any attempt to clone a human being, so Hudson also asked about creating babies using SCNT. This too raised the approval rate from 10 per cent to 24 per cent - which is not what scientists had in mind.

Does anyone think changing the term we use will make public more comfortable with cloning?

I would argue that rather than actually making the public more comfortable with the procedure, the change in terms produces only an illusory consensus -- because a large portion of the public won't understand what the new term means. As soon as they do, they will go right back to either approving or disapproving as before.

This is exactly the same debate as the choice of whether to use the term "partial birth abortion" or "intact dilation and extraction." It doesn't matter if you call it "the happy fun time procedure." The debate of terms does not change the morally ambiguous nature of the procedure; it merely muddies the waters and prevents the public from understanding what is actually happening.

This poll can say what it likes, but replacing a one term with another doesn't change the ethical calculus. Instead of cloaking our actions in jargon, we should be strenuously arguing for the moral rightness of our actions. Instead of trying to reframe the debate with symbolism, we should be edifying the public with facts. If you want robust support of therapeutic cloning, don't use bullshit. Give the public the truth.


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I couldn't agree more. How many times have you gotten an e-mail absolutely shredding the current US administration for its use of "doublespeak"--collateral damage, etc.? I can think of few actions more counterproductive to the honest and progressive engagement of the public with science than this attempt to cloak something obviously controversial with yet more "doublespeak". Scientists shouldn't be politicians. Don't act like them.

This is exactly my beef with Lakoff and his followers. Good marketing is important to politics, but all those words actually refer to something, like it or not, and that something will be evaluated the same way no matter what we call it. Rose, name, smells, etc. If Romeo were not called Montague, his family would still be at war with the Capulets.