Godsend: Can Entertainment Affect Science?

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Yesterday, I received a cloning update newsletter that contained the title "Hollywood clunker spreads fear and misconception." At first, I was confused as to how a film as God-awful as the new sci-fi film Godsend could spread anything other than contempt among those who paid to sit through it. But after exploring the movie's elaborate marketing, the confusion was easier to understand. A website for the Godsend Institute, which looks as real as Ebay, offers that fictional organization's cloning services.

In the film, a couple is pressured by Dr. Richard Wells of the Godsend Institute into cloning their dead son, Adam, with hopes of repairing their devastated family. Alas, Adam II turns out more like Damien from The Omen than like angelic Adam I.

While the film itself is too ridiculous to stir controversy, its website has. Visitors who happen upon www.godsendinstitute.org who are unaware of the connection to the movie are led to believe that Dr. Wells and his cloning cronies are real, that they have provided this "replacement" service to several satisfied customers, and that they continue to peddle their wares. Though there is an obscure ad for the movie on the site, many have missed it. Viewed in the context of human cloning claims by radical groups like Clonaid and web sites offering pet cloning services the Godsend Institute can easily be misconstrued as the genuine article. The ruse was so convincing to some people that petitions were drafted and signed to stop the non-existent Wells.

Impressive advertising strategy for an otherwise forgettable film? No question. But what is created in the name of entertainment can sometimes significantly shape the public's perception of scientific reality, just as Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast convinced some listeners, albeit unintentionally, that the U.S. was being invaded by Martians. Why shouldn't a realistic website for a reproductive cloning institute tap into analogous modern-day science fears? Since the 1996 cloning of Dolly the sheep, and subsequent cloning successes in other mammals, many people fear that reproductive cloning is already a reality and that a future inhabited by human clones in a world of science run amok is just a heartbeat away. Movies like Godsend and its accompanying website, once clearly set in the realm of science fiction, may now be viewed by some as cautionary tales warning of imminent dangers in today's world.

Unfortunately, the hype raised by fictionalized human cloning claims can inadvertently blur the lines between two very different uses of cloning technology: reproductive cloning, intended to produce a genetically-identical child, and what is sometimes called therapeutic cloning, intended to produce immune-matched and potentially life-saving embryonic stem cells. Failing to distinguish between these very different uses, and frightened by the notion of duplicate humans, the public is more susceptible to "slippery slope" fears about such technology. Failing to make careful distinctions between different uses of technology makes it easier to argue like this: technology x has the potential to be used inappropriately, so it inevitably will be and, thus, should be abandoned regardless of its potential beneficial uses. Such precautionary thinking can inhibit the development of technologies with life-saving potential.

Cloning technology strikes a nerve in many Americans, in part because the potential uses of the science are misunderstood and partly because all uses, real or imagined, are lumped together and labeled with the single term "cloning." The fact is that cloning makes for great fiction, but we need to educate the public about its real-world uses. Then hoax sites like www.godsendintitute.org can safely be appreciated for their entertainment value even if films like Godsend never will be.

Aubrey Stimola is a research intern at the American Council of Science and Health.