Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video, Flickr Creative Commons
Yesterday, every news publication that has earned a spot in my Google Reader published at least one article about Robert G. Edwards, co-developer of the in vitro fertilization process, receiving the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. My first reaction: This is ridiculously stupid.
If you're going to give a Nobel to any reproductive technology, the only ones that should even be considered are those that prevent pregnancies and reduce complications of development and childbirth. The ability to limit the number of children has improved the lives of women. Reductions of health issues experienced by newborns because of factors in the womb or during childbirth improve the lives of countless individuals. Reducing the risk of death and permanent physical damage to the mothers from childbirth also has obvious social benefits, but artificially creating more children than could otherwise be naturally conceived? Seriously, this is considered an important breakthrough in medicine? You know what? Screw orphans. This isn't even about them. This is about the fact that bringing extra people into the world is at best a wash and quite possibly harmful for the future.
Besides, it doesn't even affect that many people. Sure I just implied that this is actually a bad discovery because it brings in more lives on an overcrowded planet, but my real point is that this just doesn't really make any difference in the grand scheme of things. This treatment only really "helps" a select few who are both relatively wealthy enough to afford the treatment and who cannot conceive by other means. Basically, it allows rich people to not have to adopt and still get a kid.
But that's not even the worst part. The worst part is the coverage of this story. The ability to cure the infertility of the wealthy isn't even the most significant side effect of this development. The true significance, as pointed out to me by my brother-in-law, is that it opened the door to cloning, which is currently more a futuristic oddity, but actually has real potential to turn into life-saving and life-improving treatments in the very near future. After all, cloning hasn't just resulted in cloning entire farm animals. It has also led to research in recreating lost or malfunctioning parts of sick and injured people. That's medical progress I think holds actual real value. Despite this, several news outlets failed to mention this connection entirely and the best mention was in The Washington Post, a service I don't even follow, with a mention in the second paragraph but no further detail.
In the end, I don't really have so much of a problem with the Nobel going to Edwards. It's much like Watson's and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA. You know, the whole double helix thing is really just a model until you realize it helped further research involving genetics.
I do end up with a problem with journalism, however, and I think it starts with college journalism programs. I know when I was in school my journalism major required almost no math or science, none outside of the bare minimums required for all students, yet statistics and science are at the heart of some of the more important news in the modern world. Because of this, here we are having to hear about new breakthroughs and problems through the filter of people who are clueless. Even some of the more major political issues of the day are inherently scientific in nature. College journalism programs shouldn't require their graduates to even minor in the sciences, but they should require a broad and serious exposure to the hard sciences and statistics. Not doing so is incredibly irresponsible.