Ethics don't come into it

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I started writing this column several years ago, I sought the advice of the distinguished columnist Simon Jenkins. He said I could be provocative and should not be afraid to say what I thought, but it was essential that as a scientist I should not hesitate to criticise science or other scientists. So far I have followed only the first half of his advice, and yet again I am going to defend science as I did in my recent "Is Science Dangerous?" lectures (my answer, not surprisingly, was no).

Science provides us with the most reliable knowledge about the way the world works, but the idea that information is dangerous has a very long history: Adam was forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but it is striking that in Milton's Paradise Lost the serpent addresses the Tree as the Mother of Science. Numerous stories have been told about the dangers of knowing too much - think of Faust and Frankenstein. And today, there is continuous discussion about the dangers of scientific advances.

Yet scientific knowledge is value-free. That we are not at the centre of the universe is neither good nor bad; nor will it be of ethical significance if there are genes which facili- tate mathematical skills, or predispose to vio-lence. That's the way the world is and we have to accept it, and, if necessary, do something about it. It is the application of science to technology that can raise ethical problems.

I draw a clear distinction here between science and technology. Science is about understanding; technology is about making things. Historically, science had virtually no impact on technology until the late 18th century. All those great Renaissance buildings were not based on science, nor was the steam engine, the bicycle, nor even the first airplane. Of course, science has an enormous impact on technology now. So what is the social responsibility of scientists with respect to the applications of their discoveries?

I suggest that their prime responsibility is to make public how their science could be applied to our lives. I think it would be most unwise to let them, or any other group of experts, make ethical decisions on behalf of society, no matter how much specialised knowledge they have. By putting the information in the public domain, a democratic process becomes possible. As Robert Oppenheimer said in relation to the building of the atom bomb, scientists are not responsible for the laws of nature, although it is their job to discover them and to see how they might serve society. It is not for them to decide how this knowledge should be used.

I realise that I am exonerating scientists from any abuses that arise from the applications of science, but they, like everyone else, have their responsibilities and have the same ethical choices in deciding to work, for example, on weapons development. It should also be remembered that the uses of science cost lots of money, and it is with the holders of the purse-strings that the real power lies.

Are there not ethical issues in relation to how science is funded and which areas are studied? Are there areas, as George Steiner once suggested, that are so socially sensitive (such as race and intelligence) that their investigation should be prohibited? I would again have to say no, for the essence of science is to gain reliable knowledge. Moreover, we enter the future backwards and so we can never know how a discovery might find an application at a later date. Sorry, Simon.