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Mere words, taken out of their customary context, become shorthand for social anxieties. Consider the legacy of “nuclear magnetic resonance.” As long as researchers applied the technique to a lowly clam, as in the earliest experiments, no one had a problem with what is, after all, a perfectly descriptive technical phrase. Start sending humans into machines for diagnosis, however, and suddenly “nuclear magnetic resonance” starts to sound like the kind of medicine they practice at the Three Mile Island HMO. Hence,”magnetic resonance imaging.”

In this age of linguistic deflation, where innocent bombing victims become “collateral damage” and sex is not legally “sex,” perhaps the most underappreciated sector of the economy is the booming business devoted to the manufacture of catchy metaphors and euphemisms. Biotech and its discontents have battled for decades over clones and “suicide” genes and, more recently, “Frankenfood.”

There are two ways to look at these debates. One is that the uproar over cloned Japanese beef is merely the latest in a long line of examples
in which the human frailty in risk assessment is richly and abundantly on display. Of all the possibilities to fear when buying a piece of meat-contamination with a toxic strain of E. coli, dietary cholesterol, hormone residues, even the car ride home from the store-the fact that the beef was “cloned” seems trivial in comparison.

But there is another, less dismissive way to view the Japanese controversy. It may well be that the vague but widespread public unease about the genetic future of our food supply (see “Biotech Goes Wild”) gathers itself around a suggestive word or phrase. The specific fear of “cloned” beef may be silly, but the general discomfort level about bioengineered food is legitimate and, I suspect, not transient.Whether the phrase appears on a textbook or a food label, “genetically engineered” continues to have a sinister connotation, which is why agribusiness has worked so mightily to keep those words off packaging.

Most scientists consider Alfred Vellucci’s objections to cloning unscientific and misinformed. But another Cambridge city official, David Clem, put his finger on a problem that will never go away when societies grapple with new technologies. “I tried to understand the science, but I decided I couldn’t make a legitimate assessment of the risk,” said the former city councilman. “When I realized I couldn’t decide…on scientific grounds, I shifted to the political.”And in politics, the definition of every word is up for grabs.

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