The scientist who claims to have produced the first gene-edited children may be suffering from ethical Dunning-Kruger syndrome or ignorance of one’s ignorance.
He Jiankui expressed confidence that his experiment will be recognized as a trailblazing achievement and a watershed in medical progress in interviews and a promotional YouTube video.
This use of gene editing was denounced by the field as unethical and criminally negligent.
Nevertheless, the incident ought to make scientists take a long, hard look in the mirror.
The desire to break new ground is ingrained in scientific culture.
Being first is rewarded with honor, notoriety, rewards, and power.
Whether you have a modicum of good judgment or not, people listen to what you have to say.
Breaking the rules is often confused with originality and independence.
Being unconstrained by laws and social conventions can be useful while pursuing knowledge.
Consider James Watson, who is now again in the headlines as a result of a recent PBS documentary.
Watson was a major winner in the race to find the structure of DNA, but his brash, narcissistic personality cost him his job and gave him a rep for being a bigoted windbag. It also helped him believe in his original ideas and catapulted him to fame.
As Jonathan Kimmelman of McGill University and I was discussing the gene-editing issue, I began to consider the impact of scientific competitiveness.
He asserted that while being a meticulous and diligent researcher is wonderful for society, it may be detrimental to your job.
He has been described as a “rogue scientist” by certain news organizations, however, that is not correct.
His conception of what a great scientist ought to be comes from the larger culture.
It’s crucial to acknowledge that this individual received training from prominent US institutions and is a result of mainstream science, according to Kimmelman. This is not a person who worked in his garage while learning by reading a culinary guidebook.
The now-famous 1999 gene therapy trials at the University of Pennsylvania are the subject of a book by Kimmelman.
Investigative studies revealed how the researchers there hurried human trials of gene therapy due to financial conflicts of interest and a desire to be heroes.
When the therapy claimed the life of one of the patients, Jesse Gelsinger, 18, this came to an abrupt end. The Penn team might have been praised as champions if no one had passed away.
Even if the babies are healthy, the gene editing experiment will be remembered as unethical. The medication was intended to make the twins resistant to HIV, but there are more safer and more reliable means of avoiding infection. As a result, the benefits are minimal compared to the hazards.
The same winner-take-all ethos may help to explain why Watson, now 90, has become so poisonous to the scientific community as a result of his racist and sexist views. Last year, after toasting Watson’s success, the director of the Broad Institute, Eric Lander, was forced to issue an apology.
Watson’s coworkers wonder in an interesting article on the medical website STAT how someone so intelligent could be so insensitive, so resistive to the science of race in the twenty-first century, and, ultimately, so self-destructive:
They claim that Watson’s historical accomplishments and the methods he used to complete them, particularly his 1953 co-discovery of the structure of DNA, contain the solution. They increased his confidence in his genius as well as in how to succeed: by following his intuition, going against the grain of society, and just passingly considering the facts that form the foundation of a scientific area.”
To put it another way, he was able to advance by disregarding others, and when he took a chance and it paid off, it cemented the idea that he was wiser than everyone else in every aspect.
Kary Mullis, who received the Nobel Prize for developing the polymerase chain reaction, a technique for amplifying DNA that revolutionized criminal forensics and genetic testing, exhibits a similar type of narcissism in several interviews.
Mullis asserts in his 1999 book, which was covered in the article “Nobel Savage” from the London Review of Books, that HIV does not cause AIDS and, even worse, that psychologists are stupid for not placing enough faith in astrology.
With the most recent viral news item warning that He might receive the death penalty, the tale of the gene-edited babies gets stranger by the hour.
Although the evidence for this is tenuous, it appears likely that his career is over.
The lesson is not only for him but also for scientists, as well as for all of us: it is unquestionably not in our best interests to encourage medical research audacity at the expense of care and consideration.
The columnist for Bloomberg Opinion is Faye Flam. She has contributed articles to numerous journals, including the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, and Science. She graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in geophysics.