Science Triumphant? Not So Fast

By John Horgan
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
January 19, 1998

GARRISON -- These are giddy days for scientists. In his new book, "Remaking Eden," Lee M. Silver, a biologist at Princeton, foresees an era in which humans attain virtually infinite power to manipulate their bodies and minds. Our descendants will be smarter than Einstein and more athletic than Michael Jordan, he predicts, and they will live for hundreds of years, if not forever.

Recent events lend support to these sci-fi scenarios. Two weeks ago, Richard Seed, an unaffiliated physicist in Illinois, announced plans to open a clinic for cloning humans, a notion inspired by the cloning of a sheep last year. Last week, researchers at the Geron Corporation reported their discovery of a possible "fountain of youth," a method that could prevent the aging and death of cells.

Forgive me for being a bit jaded, but my own recent experiences give me a somewhat different perspective on the potential of these new breakthroughs. Two years ago my brother-in-law, a vibrant man in his mid-50's, was found to have cancer. He underwent the usual gamut of treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation -- and a promising experimental technique using antiangiogenic therapy. Nothing worked. He died last fall.

Since President Richard Nixon officially declared a "war on cancer" in 1971, the United States has spent more than $30 billion on cancer research. Scientists have taken enormous strides toward understanding how different types of cancer occur, and they have invented sophisticated methods for detecting the disease and tracking its course.

But overall mortality rates from cancer have remained virtually unchanged since 1971, and in fact for the 50 or so years for which reliable data exist. Maybe someday all our research will yield a "cure" that will render cancer as obsolete as polio. I certainly hope so. But the record so far does not offer much hope.

Science has also made pitifully little progress at understanding, or healing, our fantastically complicated minds. A couple of months ago, while doing research on mind-related science, I watched depressed patients at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center receiving electro-convulsive therapy. More popularly known as shock treatment, it has been refined since the days when it was portrayed in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Patients are given muscle relaxants and mouth guards to prevent teeth and bones from shattering, and dosages are calibrated to reduce memory loss.

No one has any idea why shock therapy works; it's the equivalent of kicking a TV set that is on the blink. The relapse rate is extremely high, as much as 90 percent. And yet, incredibly, for severe depression, shock therapy is the most effective treatment we have. So much for the claims that we are on the verge of abolishing despair and anxiety through drugs.

The potential of human genetics has also been overrated. Over the past decade or so, scientists have served up finding after finding proclaiming the discovery of genes that supposedly control complex human traits and disorders like novelty-seeking, homosexuality, schizophrenia, manic depression and alcoholism. Researchers hope they will be able to customize human personalities through genetic engineering. But so far not a single one of these claims linking genes to complex traits has been corroborated by follow-up studies.

Researchers have made genuine progress in finding genes associated with certain diseases -- cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and early-onset breast cancer. Tests are now available for identifying those who carry these genes and thus are likely or certain to come down with the associated disease. But none of the promises of therapies based on this genetic knowledge have been fulfilled.

It is natural for biologists and journalists to focus on the advances of science. But given how little progress science has made against such fundamental problems as cancer and mental illness -- and given how desperate people are for relief from these and other afflictions -- all this talk about our impending biological omnipotence strikes me as unseemly.

By drawing attention to science's failures as well as its legitimate achievements, perhaps scientists and journalists alike will present a less distorted, more honest picture of science's real prospects.

John Horgan is the author of "The End of Science."

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