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{from 2003}

Our experience with trying to understand the world shows us we can’t reject a claim just because it’s extraordinary. Time and time again, science has surprised us with astonishing claims that turned out to be right. Such moments, when they happen, are incredibly exciting to see.  Perhaps the announcement from Clonaid is one of them.

Clonaid is a biotech company that claims to have produced a healthy baby girl through the cloning of her mother’s cells. Such a claim, if backed by evidence, ought to be taken seriously. Unlike clairvoyance, ESP, telekinesis, and so forth, cloning a human being does not violate the laws of physics. Cloning a human would be hard, but not impossible.

Nor should we reject a claim based on who’s doing the claiming. It’s tempting to do that here because Clonaid’s founders are Raelians. They believe life on earth was seeded by aliens, who are now providing Clonaid with advanced genetic engineering technology. Does that mean we can reject their claims because they’re obviously crazy?

It’s tempting, but we can’t. History is full of intelligent, thoughtful people who believe outlandish things in one area while doing world class science in another. Isaac Newton believed in astrology and alchemy, and many leading intellects in 17th century America believed in witchcraft.

Brilliant people with odd beliefs are still around today. Think Harvard professors are smart? I know a Pulitzer Prize winner who insists that alien abductions are real. How about a 28-year-old billionaire and Internet business genius? I can find one who’s convinced that UFO’s have landed. Like it or not, there are plenty of smart people who believe weird things. We shouldn’t disbelieve them because they have weird ideas, any more than we should believe them because they’re smart. Instead, we should judge their claims on the evidence.

But there lies the problem. Clonaid hasn’t provided one shred of evidence to back up its claim. Not one. We’ve been promised DNA samples from mother and child, but so far no dice. Why? Why make the claim without evidence? If the claim were true, it would validate Raelian beliefs. And that is exactly what ought to make us suspicious.

Whenever people claim scientific support for a cherished belief, they are almost always wrong. It’s true for believers in the Shroud of Turin, it’s true for Holocaust deniers, and it’s true for astrologers. I think it’s also true for Raelians.

So I’ll put my cards on the table and say what more people ought to be saying: The emperor has no clothes. There is no clone.

I predict that over the next few days, Clonaid will go back on their promise to provide DNA samples. They’ll cite “technical problems”, “privacy concerns”, “investor obligations”, “legal issues”, or some other trivial excuse for passing up the most momentous scientific achievement in the past 100 years.

If I’m wrong, and the company does provide evidence, I bet they won’t do it in a reputable, peer reviewed, scientific fashion. I predict they’ll just magically produce two DNA samples and ask us to trust them. Right.

I also predict that when the clone proves to be a hoax, no one will care. None of the major wire services will cover it, and you’ll see nothing about in on the 10 o’clock news. That’s the reality of scientific progress. Extraordinary claims make headlines, but nobody cares about failure. So be it. If my prediction turns out to be wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it. When the evidence shows I’ve made a mistake, I’ll change my mind.

But not one second before.

So far, the Raelians haven’t put up. Until they do, they should shut up.