Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#11 - Should there be limits to knowledge?

American Heathen:  aired: 31 March 2012

A common theme in the widespread national distrust of scientists is that there should be limitations on what scientists can study.  This theme goes back a long ways – it was a principle in the monster movies of the 1930s in which there were places where inquiring minds of science shouldn’t go.  These morality plays always ended badly for the scientists, often with their deaths at the hands of some bad thing they were responsible for unleashing on the world.  The prototypical example is the so-called Frankenstein monster:  Victor Frankenstein was playing god when he tried to create life from something nonliving.  Of course, he began with parts that at one time had been living, which is sort of cheating, but in any case, his experiment turned bad because of an error by his assistant and Victor Frankenstein paid the price.  A typical movie morality play and nothing more, but it reveals a distrust of science that obviously began several decades before the current era.

Another example often cited in this context is the development of the atomic bomb by the US in World War II.  Many people see this as an unalloyed evil, released into the world by the Manhattan Project scientists, led by the famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Robert Oppenheimer.  In fact, some people see the unraveling of Oppenheimer’s career as a kind of justice for his evil deeds in helping create this monster, the atomic bomb.

Of course, assuming for the sake of argument that there should be limitations on scientific exploration, who is to decide where those limits should be?  Politicians?  Religious leaders?  Public polls?  George W. Bush demanded that research into the medical possibilities for stem cells had to be restricted on moral grounds (mostly related to abortions), and achieved that goal by limiting the use of federal funding in this field.  There are ongoing discussions about recombinant DNA research and what should or should not be allowed.  Our technological society is struggling over such questions at a time when distrust of scientists is on the rise in a society whose members are increasingly ignorant of science.

Scientists are, for the most part, not trusted to make their own decisions.  Are scientists some sort of cold, uncaring, amoral being, driven by ambition and greed to create evil things?  Or is this part of the continuing war on knowledge being waged by the abrahamic religions, starting with the casting out of Adam and Eve from Paradise for partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge?  Or is it a result of scientific illiteracy that scientists are not trusted by many people?  We do tend to fear what we don’t understand.

Let’s consider the case of the atomic bomb.  In reality, the real scientific breakthroughs were the understanding of the relationship between matter and energy by Einstein in 1905 and the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn in 1938.  These are the key principles behind the bomb, but turning this theory into a real bomb was almost exclusively a problem of engineering, not science.  With the massive funding of the US government, Oppenheimer’s team was able to develop two different types of atomic bomb based on the previously-discovered understanding of nuclear fission:  one using uranium and the other using plutonium.  It was decided by politicians, not scientists, to use them on Japan without warning.  For what it’s worth, that’s one political choice with which I agree.

But it’s not the science that is evil.  What’s evil is how scientific knowledge is used!  The scientists have to choose whether or not to participate in the development and application of that knowledge, of course.  And some of those who participated in developing the atomic bomb later became strong advocates for the total elimination of nuclear weapons in the post war era.  A few chose not to participate at all in the development of the atomic bomb.

I don’t pretend to know how to prevent unscrupulous application of scientific knowledge.  I neither claim for myself the ability to draw a line between evil research and good research, nor do I know of anyone who legitimately could make such a claim.  Surely not politicians and religious leaders!  The corrupting influences of profit and power can indeed subvert knowledge into something evil.  But I refuse to believe that knowledge inherently is anything but a positive thing.  It gives us a powerful basis on which we can make choices based on knowledge, not ignorance or hearsay or received opinions from demagogues masquerading as pundits.  Putting external limitations on what scientists can study strikes me as an infringement on free inquiry, which any freethinker should oppose.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.