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Visvas from Vassnes

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Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and critic.
The problem with Bjørn Vassnes as a science journalist is that he believes he conveys important insights from natural science, and that anyone who criticizes him denies realities.


Under the title «The wonderful new world of biology» I reviewed on December 10, among others Bjørn Vassnes' The Renewable Man. In the review, I problematized how scientific research is presented to most people: Journalists select, and shape «stories», so that complex and ambiguous scientific findings are conjured into exciting and readable articles. This has led to an over-focus on reports of new sensational discoveries, while neglecting refusals of the same type of "discovery". The consequence is that the public is left with an overly optimistic view of what the actual status is in, for example, recent medical and biological research.

6. January Bjørn Vassnes came up with an answer during this preface: "Kjetil Korslund's review of my book is a catalog of the worst prejudices and clichés against biomedicine." It turns out that Vassnes I think has written about and against biomedicine. I do not understand how he got this impression. My article is not primarily about science, it is about disseminating science. As a literary scholar, Bjørn Vassnes should be able to read what is actually in a text, but it may have been a long time since he did that kind of thing. To make it crystal clear: I have nothing against scientific research.

When I comment on how scientific truths are being exchanged at an ever-increasing pace, by comparing them to the duration of Plato's insights, Vassnes perceives this as I paying tribute to Plato's "elitist opinions" on slaves, women, and "the berm." Point 1: Greek Antiquity was based on slave economy; this neither weakens nor strengthens Plato as a philosopher to any significant degree. Point 2: Plato's view of women was startlingly radical: Unlike many others, Plato believed that women could be full citizens. Point 3: Plato has no teachings about the "berm". The kind of objection that Vassnes here tries to make is as if I were to criticize Principia because Newton, after writing this work, spent the rest of his life on what we today think is vassal (primarily number magic applied to Daniel's book in the Bible).

The whole problem with Vassnes as a science journalist is that he thinks he conveys important insights from the natural sciences, and that anyone who criticizes him denies realities. But Vassnes not only runs the media, he also thinks a lot about the issues he writes. Research does not take place in a value-neutral vacuum. What you choose to research, where research is funded, how it is applied, how it is interpreted and disseminated by different actors; all this has valuable consequences. When Vassnes intervenes in value debates, he makes it very easy for him to attack those who have the worst arguments: in this case, Christians and philosophers with hanging on Kant. As I wrote in my review: Further scolding of these groups has nothing to do with it. Rather, Vassnes can begin to tell us about the status of reproductive cloning and the ethics associated with it. That is why he is certainly silent: he knows that this is an anathema. But precisely this theme is something that Vassnes should be familiar with: All the knowledge that useful stem cell research will generate can be used, and will be used for reproductive cloning.

As a historical example of how the misrepresentation of science to the public takes place in practice, I pointed out in my review how the public still believes that there is a connection between criminal behavior and the chromosome combination XYY. Towards the end of the 1960s, this theory was strongly promoted by journalists and researchers together. However, it was pulverized in the 1970s, but precisely because negative studies are largely neglected, few have experienced this, and Bjørn Vassnes is not among them. He can take a look at Richard Fox's "The XYY Offender: A Modern Myth?" in Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science No. 62 (1971), pages 59-73; and HA Witkins, “Criminality in XYY and XXY Men,” in Science 193 (1976), pp. 547-555.

One thing is that Bjørn Vassnes enthusiastically throws himself over all gen-gla 'news, and is not as eager to convey about setbacks. Another is that he does not even have time to wait for real verifications: On page 78, we can read in Vassnes' book The Renewable Man about Woo-Suk Hwang's startlingly successful attempts to grow human ES cells by nuclear transfer (therapeutic cloning ): «Just over a year later, Woo-Suk Hwang announced that the method had been greatly improved: Now they had made 11 different stem cell lines, based on only 185 eggs (ref. 31). The allegations that nuclear transfer would require too many eggs were thus put to shame […] At the same time, a British research team was able to report that they too had carried out a successful therapeutic cloning of human cells. It showed that the method can be used by several ».

Well: What this shows is that Vassnes, like many others, went on the glue stick. Woo-Suk Hwang is now revealed as a cheater, and that news did not come from science journalist Vassnes. Bjørn Vassnes is himself the best example of how the misuse of natural sciences takes place through the media. Not because he writes as much as is wrong, but because he is selective: he enthusiastically throws himself over everything he wants to hear, and ignores refutations of what he has presented as the status of scientific research.

Vassnes does not like that I pointed out that his book lacks both bibliography and register, and believes that I deliberately "forget" that he has complete source references, "which is probably the most important thing". Register could be a book that The Renewable Man absolutely needs, but the claim that the book has complete source references is pure spray. Reference 27, for example, is as follows: «e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, 25 / 11-2002». This is not a complete source reference. Furthermore, there are many startling claims in Vassnes' book that have no reference at all: The above-mentioned British research team which had also "carried out a successful therapeutic cloning of human" cells "has no reference and I have not heard of this. Maybe just as well since this is supposed to support Vassne's claim that cheat maker Woo-Suk Hwang's therapeutic cloning was a "method" that could be "used by many".

Vassnes should take better time, get into relevant counter arguments against what he himself thinks, and do better research.

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