I just feel compelled to react to the cover of the latest issue of Nature that dropped over the transom. It, to me personally, reflects the thoroughness of the trivialization or sensationalizing of science, and perhaps our society general.
Each week, Nature's cover advertises its hot revolutionary stories, usually in what they think are cute little tag-lines that would be more appropriate on TV promos. Today, the one that caught my eye as not just forced salesmanship but as inappropriately offensive was:
Down on the bottom left, under the "Ethics" heading,
This was about the use that has been made of Ms Henrietta Lacks' DNA since the cell line from the African-American woman, who died of cervical cancer, was made universally available for research. To compound the history of her exploitation, Ms Lacks was exploited badly in a recent best-selling book, though perhaps most readers were so wrapped up in the story about the Lacks exploitation that they didn't the book itself as yet another exploitation, and recently some agreement was made, in nobly sounding ethical phrases by NIH, about the right to use and publish research on those 'HeLa' cells, and some compensation or decision role of her surviving descendants. So there is a story to be reported, perhaps.
But by what right or moral ground does Nature refer to her as "Henrietta"? And by what morality do they refer to her 'legacy', when it was in actuality the product of exploitation--well-intentioned and designed for human good as it has been--of this lower-SES victim of disease, and of inadvertent but perhaps effectively racist exploitation as well?
The issue of how valuable the HeLa cell line is or has been, and whether or how it should continue to be used (it can't really be stopped as countless labs worldwide use the cells), is legitimate but separate from the simple decency of respect rather than arrogant and paternalistic presumption of goodwill and family familiarity.
"Ms Lacks and the use of cell lines in science" or something of that sort would have more honorably, sensitively, and properly indicated the story within the covers. She was not the editors' neighbor Henrietta, from whom they'd run next door to borrow a cup of sugar.
The cover indicates that this is an ethics story, and the ethical issues (mainly from the point of view of scientists, though well-intentioned) of rights and permissions in research are appropriate, but what are the ethics of referring to her informally and to what they exploited from her as her legacy?
Does Nature use diminutive familiarity in headings like "Francis's exploits!" to refer to the latest exploitation by which Francis Collins fleeces you of your tax money to, say, map your brain? Or "Eric does it again" to refer to the latest mega-paper by Eric Lander? If they see this post, they might start that, because People-magazine-like familiarity might help them sell more mags. And Science will not be far behind.
I may be too prudish or stodgy, or something, but I had to react to this.