By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in SEED on 12 April 2009

On the sensationalized landscape of American media, scientific breakthroughs and alien fantasies often seem to walk hand in hand. It’s as if our inability to cope with the implications of a new discovery makes us susceptible to the most outlandish and unfounded claims.

Like most of America, I woke up to the Clonaid story on December 27th (I can’t help but suspect Eve was supposed to be born on Christmas day, just to stoke America’s messianic fervor). And, if for no other reason than its uncontextualized placement at the heart of the news stream, I believed it to be true for at least seven minutes. But even seven minutes is a long time when it comes to media cycles. In the minds of countless television viewers and, worse, news media professionals, the damage had been done.

For the Clonaid claim was an opportunistic media virus. As such, it fed on our current deficit of understanding and rationality—as well as our media’s cognitive dissonance—when it comes to new science.

It quickly became apparent that most major media outlets, while admitting that Clonaid’s claim was unsubstantiated, would be pressing hard on the alien angle. Cable news channels couldn’t help but delight in the eccentricity of the tube-friendly Raelians. Fox News’ Brit Hume deconstructed the otherworldly facial expressions and costumes of Raelian spokesperson Bridgette Boisellier and her robed leader, Rael himself. By nightfall, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was reporting the story side by side with his cloned duplicate on a split screen special effect.

When the programmers ran out of their own tacky ideas, it was the audience’s turn to clone more clone story permutations. Radio call-in shows and participatory TV programs like CNN Talkback Live were swamped with creative, if absurd, questions and suggestions, from the notion of a mother giving birth to her twin sister to lottery winners cloning copies of themselves in order to reap double rewards. These antics would have made the Ringling Brothers—not to mention P.T. Barnum—proud.

The media circus took the place of hard facts. In fact, there were no facts—no baby, no lab reports, nothing; just an assertion. Were it not in the area of science—a science with particularly taboo associations given the public’s religious bias and ignorance of the facts—the editors and top decision-makers at our media outlets would have likely rejected the story. Or, at least they would have put it on page 16 where it belonged.

Instead, they harped endlessly on the most bizarre aspects of Raelians behind Clonaid, irresponsibly setting the alien agenda in the public mind, and forever marrying the real science of cloning with UFOs and sex cults in the cultural consciousness. Sure, the media is driven by profit. Sensationalist stories attract our eyes to the newsstands and keep our fingers off the remote control. But the hoopla surrounding the Cloneaid debacle seems rooted in something deeper than simple sensationalism.

It’s not the first time America has wrestled with a challenging new science or suffered the same associated media insanity. Back in the 1940’s, shortly after the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on a real population, America’s combined sense of guilt and fear of reprisal led thousands of eyes to scan the skies for invaders from beyond. Newspapers couldn’t resist reporting each new claim and printing every doctored photo depicting alien spacecraft.

By the early 1970’s, shortly after Roe vs. Wade confirmed our commitment to a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion, UFO mythology shifted from the heavens to our bedrooms. As the Christian right mounted its religious attack on early pregnancy termination, people began reporting that they had been taken against their will by aliens whose heads looked alarmingly like those of an unborn fetus. Once abducted, the human victims were forced to undergo “suction” procedures and genital scrapings remarkably analogous to the abortionist’s D&C.

The Clonaid saga is nested in the same great mire between science, popular culture, and religion that gave rise to these epidemic UFO sightings and abductions. Our vulnerability to stories having anything to do with cloning finds its root in our ignorant, complex and unresolved relationship to genetics and science at large. This is the decade of the genome, after all, and we are facing new questions about the limits of appropriate medical research, and the essence of humanity.

It is power that frightens us so. The power to kill millions or to end the progress of one’s fetus in a simple and legal procedure freaked us out in their own eras as they emerged. The public’s all-too-primitive understanding of genetic engineering, likewise, makes us feel as though we are on the brink of having access to the kinds of decision-making we had always deferred to higher powers.

We are at one of those moments where we fear we have overstepped our bounds. And rather than discussing all this intelligently, we are racing back to our ideological and religious predilections.

Into the void step the Moral Right, smelling something along the lines of abortion. They rush to equate stem cell research with baby killing, and genetic mapping with a Gnostic alchemist’s challenge to God’s authority. Hell, they’re still fighting the theory of evolution for its affront to the creation myth of Genesis and the alternative it offers us to the predetermined fires of Armageddon.

Meanwhile, the keepers of the biomedical stock indices put their heads in a different sort of sand, maintaining the equally absurd proposition that we are on the brink of absolute mastery of the human genome, and thus well within striking range of eliminating cancer, choosing eye color, intelligence, and disposition.

Along come the Raelians, who we call a “cult” for having followers that believe that DNA was planted on earth by an alien species, and that it is our destiny to develop the ability to manipulate our own genetic material and even push life extension to the point of infinity.

Really, how much more absurd is this than the contention of so very many Americans that we were created by an all-powerful being, and that it is our destiny to await the return of a man-God, his son, who will deliver us into eternal bliss beyond the confines of our bodies?

Is the notion of DNA arriving on earth extra terrestrially and then finding a suitable breeding ground in our warm nitrogen-rich soup really more improbable than the accepted hypothesis of a spontaneous leap in molecular self-organization from amino acids to proteins to, well, life?

We’ll be defenseless against the cultists and the media they are getting so very good at manipulating as long as we refuse to recognize the cults into which we’ve fallen ourselves. We must not respond to each new scientific discovery with the reactive fear that it will shake the foundations of our religious narratives. Neither can we develop a surefire business plan or new global society around the untested promise of every promising breakthrough.

Until we find a reason to grow up, our relationship to science—particularly in the area of reproduction—will remain hopelessly stymied by our self-imposed immaturity. We respond to stories about reproductive science like giggly junior high school kids first hearing about nocturnal emissions in hygiene class. Our uneasiness can certainly be alleviated through comedy on Letterman or Leno, but it will only be exacerbated when our serious news media involuntarily succumb to the same urges as our late-night clowns.

But the God-like abilities coming soon to a laboratory near you demand we all grow up, and grow up fast. Education about the fundamental opportunities and liabilities of any scientific breakthrough is no longer a luxury, but a responsibility. They cannot be deferred to those who “know better,” because these leaders are simply taking their cue from us.

We must demand that our news media—at least some of the time—treat us like adults who need to make real decisions for ourselves and our futures based on what they tell us. They are our first line of defense against those who mean to deliver their own agendas in the Trojan Horse of misunderstood science. While they’re on the job, anyway, they must resist the temptation to turn every alien idea into an invader from Mars. The airplay it earns isn’t worth the price.