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I have tried to put my finger on what it is about biotechnology that causes some people to hold it out as a great hope for the future and others to reject it as a dangerous and unwise application of science. How is it that adversaries can look at the same evidence and come up with opposite interpretations? Is the evidence too inadequate to be conclusive? Or is something else going on?
One answer to the dilemma is another apparent paradox: both sides are right, and neither side is right. Like many technologies, biotechnology has both its advantages and disadvantages. When opponents focus on different, if overlapping, issues, the result is confusion and disagreement. Used as a catchall term to cover a multitude of effects, biotechnology often ends up getting sole blame or credit for outcomes that are really due to a combination of factors that include planning, infrastructure, regulations, and economics. The way to resolve these disputes is to be more precise about what exactly is being debated in the name of biotechnology.
For example: Does the Human Genome Project provide knowledge that can help prevent and cure disease? Yes. Does it give rise to difficult ethical dilemmas (such as medical privacy and the patenting of human genes)? Yes. Should we abandon the project because of the difficulties? Or, how can we control and manage the project so as to minimize the ethical concerns and reduce known risks while keeping the benefits? The last question is the most difficult to answer. It is less likely to be addressed in public debates, which tend to be framed in simpler terms of yea or nay.
The main arenas in which biotechnology battles are fought—medicine, agriculture, and the environment—