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.
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