After spending the weekend reading blog posts claiming that he was seeking an "extremely adventurous female human" to bear a cloned Neanderthal baby - which was news to him - Harvard geneticist George Church said it may be time for society to give some thought to scientific literacy.
Church became the subject of dozens of posts and tabloid newspaper articles calling him a "mad scientist" after giving an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel.
In the interview, Church discussed the technical challenges scientists would face if they tried to clone a Neanderthal, though neither he nor the Der Spiegel article, which was presented as a question and answer exchange, said he intended to do so.
"Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby," read one headline, on the website of London's Daily Mail. But Church explained on Wednesday that he was simply theorising.
Still, the readiness of bloggers, journalists and readers to believe he was preparing an attempt to clone a Neanderthal, a species closely related to modern humans that went extinct some 30,000 years ago, led Church to ponder scientific literacy.
"The public should be able to detect cases where things seem implausible," Church said in an interview at his office at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"Everybody's fib detector should have been going off. They should have said, ‘What? Who would believe this?'... This really indicates that we should have scientific literacy."
Despite the spate of articles comparing him to the character in the book and movie "Jurassic Park" who attempts to open a theme park filled with living dinosaurs, Church said he plans to continue speaking publicly about his research, which focuses on using genes to treat and prevent disease.
Given the number of policy debates driven by science - from how to address climate change, to space exploration, to public health concerns - scientists should not back away from talking to the media, Church said.
"We really should get the public of the entire world to be able to detect the difference between a fact and a complete fantasy that has been created by the internet," he said.
In the Der Spiegel article, which Church said reported his words accurately, and his recent book ‘Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves’, Church theorised that studying cloned Neanderthals could help scientists better understand how the human mind works. Scientists have already extracted DNA from Neanderthal bones.
But such experiments would pose a host of ethical concerns - including how many Neanderthals would be created and whether they would be treated as mere study subjects or as beings with their own rights, Church said.
"I do want to connect the public to science because there are so many decisions to be made if the way they learn it, if they learn it faster by talking about Neanderthals than they did by getting rote learning in high school, that's great," he said.
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