See update (21 Aug 2014 2218 CET) at bottom of text.
A recent amusing Twitter exchange between myself, colleagues, and a chap who writes for an online magazine reignited some thoughts I had about the interplay between scholarly discourse and public perception. You may recall that there were recent reports about an Australian couple obtaining surrogacy services in Thailand. When it turned out that of the twins that the surrogate was expecting, one was diagnosed in utero with Down’s, a chain of events was set in motion which led to the Australian couple departing with the non-Down’s twin only, leaving the other twin behind. Read all about it here. I am not going to go through all of the reported issues in this blog post. The, brief, point I seek to make here is another.
The initial reports of the story had the tenor that the couple had had a surrogacy arrangement and had decided to ‘leave the defective item they bought’ behind, only taking the good child, etc. It made the couple look like monsters devoid of emotion who had decided to abandon the unwanted twin in terrible poverty and without appropriate care as they felt that the child was worthless because of its genetic characteristics. How could they! Outrage!!
It subsequently turned out that the surrogate declined to let them leave with both children, and, in fact, put pressure on them to only leave with the one twin by suggesting that she might keep both if they did not agree. In a balanced debate this might have led to the papers saying:
Oh wow – we didn’t get it quite right. They didn’t horribly abandon the poor child with Down’s at all. It was much more complex and nuanced. Our initial reporting may have done them an injustice in being inaccurate and subcomplex. Maybe even poorly researched!
Of course it didn’t lead to that. Mainly because the couple turned out, whilst not being wilful child abandoners, to be intensely ignorant nonetheless. The decisive interview had the male partner suggesting that they would, of course, have had an elective abortion of the twin with Down’s, had they only known about it earlier. Because “no parent wants a disabled child”. So the press had another piece of scandalous human behaviour to latch on to.
In fact, the whole thing is an interesting real-life illustration of some exciting bioethics issues (which I will have to leave for another time or someone else). The question that occurred to me is this: do we expect public discourse to inform academic discourse and vice versa? It would certainly be desirable. Whether such an exchange works hinges in part on the quality of the journalism, the objectives of the publication, and the intellectual capabilities of the journalists. Where the journalism is shoddy, of course we don’t expect a meaningful contribution. Where the tabloidy nature of the publication prevents balanced reporting, of course we don’t. Where the journalist is intellectually incapable, or too poorly trained, to grasp the complexity of a scholarly debate – of course we do not.
This is something that became fairly clear when some Australian researchers (it’s always Aussies!) felt the full broadside of ill-informed public outrage (I wrote about it here). Lay commentators latched onto a couple of juicy soundbites and spun the whole thing into a scandal. That was a pretty scary (and exasperating) experience for scholars on the sidelines and it raised difficult issues in relation to public pressures on freedom of research. Maybe I ought to spend the public dollar I am paid looking at something trivial instead, lest I get hit by subcomplex reporting of my work followed by death threats? This is an important issue because it is more likely to lead to sandboxing of scholarship vs. public discourse and undo decades of public engagement and communication of science work.
Alas, it was with a sense of mounting dread that I read a “commentary” (here) on a recent paper in the JME (here) and two posts on the JME Blog (here, here). The author of the Spiked Online piece, Sandy Starr, entirely misunderstands the purpose of academic papers and seems to think that it is a mission statement released by some sort of US-based sect of ART haters. He suggests that the paper’s author “attacks” and “complains” and suggests that it is misanthropic.
Starr goes further and proceeds to misrepresent the position taken by Iain Brassington, who is the author of one of the accompanying JME Blog posts. Anyone who carefully reads Iain’s post can see that he is doing but one thing: he picks up on and welcomes the development of a more nuanced and finely grained look at the pros and cons of ART. This falls short of what seems to be Starr’s preferred level of simpleness in ART provision: either you are for ART in all circumstances or you are a horrid person! Let’s have a look at what happened:
|What Starr thought Brassington said||What Brassington really said||Wait! What’s going on?|
|“(…) Brassington lauds Richie for having dared to ask ‘whether facilitating reproduction is always a good thing’”||“There’s lots of ink spilled over who should have access to infertility treatment, for sure – but there is a good deal less time devoted to the question of whether facilitating reproduction is always a good thing to begin with. It might turn out that it is – I don’t know.”||Brassington doesn’t laud that Richie dared to ask a question. He lauds that Richie contributes to the understanding that the debate is not black and white. Brassington also qualifies his analysis with “I don’t know”, i.e. he explicitly doesn’t go one way or the other. A fact Starr embezzles in his account.|
|“(…) his only complaint seemingly being that she doesn’t go far enough. ‘If I wanted to frack for shale gas under Manchester, there’d be questions about sustainability, and about whether we should be looking for more and cheaper hydrocarbons given what we know about the environment. So why not ask analogous questions about reproduction, its environmental impact, and its legacy to the future?’”||“But the fact that there isn’t all that much attention given to the question of where ARTs fit in a more holistic account of what policy should be does seem important. We’d ask it in relation to other industries – if I wanted to frack for shale gas under Manchester, there’d be questions about sustainability, and about whether we should be looking for more and cheaper hydrocarbons given what we know about the environment. So why not ask analogous questions about reproduction, its environmental impact, and its legacy to the future?”||Brassington’s nuanced position is reduced to a single sentiment by Starr, who doesn’t succeed in removing himself from the firing line by writing ‘seemingly’. Starr removes all qualifying and balancing aspects of Brassington’s text and presents a distilled version of the original text that is no longer recognisable, qualitatively or quantitatively, as Brassington’s suggestion.|
So Starr is doing Brassington an injustice by taking his balanced discussion of one important aspect in bioethics (what to legitimately take into account when balancing morally relevant factors) and reducing it to a for-or-against position. Over and beyond doing Brassington an injustice, he is being prepubescently ridiculous when he writes:
If this sort of loathsome bilge is what passes for ethics today, then my suggestion to those working in the fertility sector is that they take any accusations of being unethical as a badge of pride.
Really? Go to your room and think about how arguments work.
In any case, there is still the possibility that Starr was simply not intellectually capable of understanding the complex bioethical debate that he was desperately trying to summarise in binary. In this case, we would be doing him an injustice if we mocked him. This doesn’t seem to be the case. A protracted Twitter exchange (some of which you can find here) suggests that he at least acquiesces to the possibility that he is misrepresenting the work of serious academics – and simply doesn’t care. In this case, he is doing his employer a disservice and he is also blatantly unaware of how science works. It’s also pretty shoddy journalism, and irresponsible in that it may add to a climate in which free research is shackled.
He also seems to fail to grasp that if his homies Edwards, Purdy and Steptoe had not persevered against Starresquely zealous opponents of ART by thinking their problem through to the end, in all its nuances and complexity, and solving it, Starr would not have had an IVF child to congratulate on her 36th birthday. In the same vein, those thinking the complexities of parameters (that may at some point be drawn upon to inform allocation decisions in ART) all the way through, create the very evidence base on which ART can be provided in the best possible way. But that might be a little bit too complex.
Update: Sandy Starr has provided a link to a more complete summary of the Twitter exchanges, which you can find here.