The Dark Side of Science
Thursday, October 24, 2013 -- 5:00 PM
Ken Taylor

This week we're stepping over to the Dark Side of Science. Of course a skeptic might ask, what dark side?  Without modern science, we’d still be bleeding the sick, travelling by horseback, and using carrier pigeons for long distance communication.

But there are no unmixed blessings.  Like everything else in life, science has its downsides too.  The same science that gives us modern medicine, also gives us germ warfare.  Modern transportation is ruining the environment.  And modern communication enables governments to spy on us and terrorists to plot against us.  Of course that’s not all science does. But you’ve got to admit that science is a double-edge sword. Unfortunately, we’ve got to take the good with the bad.

Now you might distinguish scientific knowledge from the application of that knowledge.  The knowledge science gives us can never be bad in and of itself, even if it’s sometimes used for bad purposes.  But it could be argued that that’s an artificial distinction -- in the real world, you can’t divorce scientific knowledge from its applications. 

That said, think of the centuries it took to get from Hooke’s discovery of the cell to the invention of germ warfare.  Or the decades it took to get from the development of the modern theory of the atom to the building of nuclear bombs.  You can’t stop the progress of science out of fear that someday, who knows when, somebody or other, might or might not use scientific knowledge to build bad things.

This might make it sound like pure science takes place in a morally pristine vacuum.  And maybe that’s how it once was.  But that’s not how it is in the here and now, not with so much of science being funded and fueled by the military–industrial–technological–university–medical–pharmaceutical complex.

 

Now if that makes me sound a little like a whacked out conspiracy theorist -- as if science is the result of dark, evil forces -- the point is that the gap between discovery and application is much shorter than it used to be.  And individual scientists can’t so easily shield themselves from responsibility for the use and possible misuse of their discoveries.

 

But what follows from that? Are we suggesting it’s the individual scientist’s responsibility to somehow guarantee that her discoveries aren’t put to bad use?  Is that reasonable?  Or even possible?  An individual scientist is just one person.  If the military–industrial–technological–university–medical–pharmaceutical complex is determined to produce high tech weapons, or genetically altered species, or what have you, there’s almost nothing any individual can do to stop it.

 

But couldn't they refuse to participate?  Maybe scientists shouldn't just be able to sell their expertise to the highest bidder and then wash their hands of the consequences.  But you have to admit that it only goes so far. You can’t really count on individual scientists alone to regulate the massive complex that fuels modern science.  The government has a role to play. The people in their capacities as citizens and consumers also have a role to play. But we can’t let individual scientists off the hook too fast. 

 

There’s no doubt that regulating science to ensure that it’s used only for the good is a complicated, multifaceted thing.  Our guest, UC Berkeley anthropologist Paul Rabinow, will help us think about the social and cultural reception of this complicated, multifaceted, dark-sided thing called science.

 

[And of course if you can't get enough philosophy-cum-science, don't miss our live recording this coming Wednesday October 30 at the Bay Area Science Festival.] 

Comments (17)


MJA

Sunday, October 27, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

From Dark to Light

From Dark to Light
On the other dark side of science is their own uncertainty of measure. their QM, their probability or grey area at best. One day soon, they too will remove the blinds that obscure their vision, and let the real or absolute light shine on, shine in. A whole new world, a better place, for you, for me, equally. =
I can't take you there because we are there, all One needs to do is see!

Guest

Monday, October 28, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Science, itself, is pretty

Science, itself, is pretty much neutral. There is no dark side or light side at the base of scientific inquiry. Scientists do what they do. Robert Oppenheimer appeared to regret his role in the development of the atomic bomb---after he saw what it would do. Richard P. Feynman, a great physicist in his own right and a contributor to the ill-fated Manhattan Project, went on to win a Nobel prize in or around 1965. These individuals and so many others, did their science because it was THERE to be done, not because it was, would, or might be dark, light or indifferent. Let's not over-think this, friends. Even Heisenberg allowed an uncertainty principle. So, there we are.

Guest

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I was amused by the image

I was amused by the image above---Gene Wilder from Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, isn't it? Well, that much aside, I must agree, mostly, with our friend Neuman. What HGN leaves out (intentionally or not) is the ongoing friction and fractionalization among scientists. These otherwise honorable men and women continually pick and snipe at one another's work. There are so many feuds, past and present, that we sometimes wonder how anything gets done in the field of science (much as with politics, but it is all interrelated of course.) And so, this dark side of science appears to be status quo---even necessary. Because after all is said, things DO get done. And just so.
the Doctor.

Guest

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Science is a branch of

Science is a branch of knowledge, and knowledge is a source of power. All forms of power can be used for good or evil.
The problem in large part seems to boil down to the question, should knowledge (especially of the scientific variety) be considered a private or public asset? In other words, should all scientific discoveries be available to everyone? Or, should individuals and groups be allowed to keep them private and profit from them? I think there would be much less concern with the dark side of science if scientific knowledge and discoveries were fully out in the open.

Guest

Monday, November 4, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Well. Now that we have

Well. Now that we have contemplated the "dark side of science", shall we discuss the "dark side of religion". Or perhaps, the "dark side of philosophy?" Really. There will always be uncertainty. Someone said that. Keep on saying what you say, Neuman,---the boxcars of this world are full of effluent of one sort or another. Poison is harmless when it is not ingested...figuratively speaking, of course...

Guest

Thursday, November 7, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

This was a frustratingly

This was a frustratingly muddled show. Rabinow kept conflating science and technology (molecular biology is *all* technology? Really? Ever heard of Hox genes, or rna interference, or the c-value paradox, or any other of a number of theoretical insights that come from molecular work?) He then simultaneously criticized molecular bio for being in the pocket of big pharma's patent network (because the results are worth all that funding) yet also (somehow) ineffective in discovering much that was medically useful. You gotta work pretty hard to maintain that kind of cognitive dissonance. He takes issue with biotech patents because we somehow "lose" the fruits of the research? Um, no, everyone gains the knowledge (either through the journal publication or the patent application), the funder just gets a limited-time monopoly on making money from the patentable discovery. The sloppy reasoning just goes on and on...
Of course what gets funded is not totally neutral, and more funding for basic science would be a great solution to the difficulty of promoting "interesting" rather than "profitable" research. But to say that discovering the way the cosmos, chemistry, or our particular biology works (in other words, to figure out what is already going on) is somehow dark or evil? Please.
Go criticize the technologists if you like - they are *not* scientists, but engineers. Seriously, "The Dark side of Technology" would have been a fairer title to the show.

Guest

Friday, November 8, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

The Roman Stoic essayist,

The Roman Stoic essayist, Seneca, noted, "It is better, of course, to know useless things than to know nothing." His observation would serve fittingly as a motto for many modern educational systems but surely not for science or philosophy. Who would expect science to remain pure and useless? Thus, the conduct of science, like that of any activity must be judged by its consequences.

MJA

Sunday, November 10, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

The tree of knowledge

The tree of knowledge
Have you eaten from the physics tree of science yet, the tree that found its own measure of nature to be uncertain or only probable at best? Have you swallowed the fruit and become a gambler in their game of dice too? Have you been sold on the scientific snake oil of chance? Have you fallen into the spell yet of quantum mechanics, fallen into the dizzying black holes or rabbit holes of today?s science? If so, can you tell me how deep into uncertainty has science taken you, how deep does science go? Does it go deeper than Higgs or god particles, farther than strings and multiverses, deeper than their own equations? Is it possible to escape once you have fallen in? Is there any way out? Can science escape the gravitation pull of its own smoke and mirrors? And while you are in there can you tell me: Is science the best at calling a kettle black or does black really matter, is a black hole black? And lastly or rather firstly, can you tell me, did the big bang make any sound or is that theory just another pseudo hole of a dud too?
Should I eat the fruit too?
=

Guest

Sunday, November 10, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I had wanted to comment on

I had wanted to comment on the self-knowledge post---but I missed out, so---I'll try a backdoor approach, inasmuch as self-knowledge might be some sort of dark science anyway. A sage friend once asked: can a self ever know what it is while being itself? (my wiser friend sometimes reads this blog and might certainly have some comment to make concerning this commentary. Or not.) We do know what we BELIEVE ourselves to be. This is a given and, I think, unarguable. The problem that is individual, interpersonal, communal, national, international and global perspective is the disconnect between belief and reality. Belief and reality are only peripherally related, and with that thought, I'll leave kind readers to draw their own conclusions.

Guest

Monday, November 11, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Interesting point, MJA. The

Interesting point, MJA. The magical tree of the knowledge of good and evil seems to have become intertwined so tightly with the tree of empirical knowledge that the two are essentially one in some areas.

Guest

Monday, November 11, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

"...I'm just trying to work

"...I'm just trying to work this jigsaw puzzle, before it rains anymore..."---Rolling Stones, circa 1970s.---or, as previously suggested: You won't always want what you get. Philosophy as an outgrowth of rock and roll? Who would have thought?
Kindest Regards,
Neuman.

MJA

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Light

Light
Thanks for the response Arvoasitis, do you really see it, can you see the light?
Do you also see or understand the flaw of science is the fruit of our own measure? It is measure that divides equality and unity, separates the true Oneness of the Universe into good and bad, right and wrong, heaven and hell, yin and yang, Higgs and quarks, strings and even multi verses. It is measure that science itself has proven uncertain or only probable at best that is tearing apart the Universe. Do you see that too?
Man is the measure of all things an old Greek once said, and therein lays the flaw of us all. Measure!
Who are we to judge, everything?
And If I so humbly may: The solution, the light at the end of the tunnel, the promised land that Dr. King died for, the equality that Abraham Lincoln died for, that mankind continues to fight and die for, that Gandhi died for, the unifying equation that Einstein died searching for, was much more simple than thought, the absolute is right here =
Can you see that too?
Can you see the paradise we are losing?
Can you see the promise land is not there, it is right here?
All we have to do is remove the uncertainty from the equation to not only see it, but to just be it. Just be the light of freedom, the light of absolute, the light of truth, equality, Oneness. Be the light of you and me, the light of the Promised Land, the light of One equals the light of All.
And as for religion,
Amen.
=

Guest

Thursday, November 14, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I am pleased that you do not

I am pleased that you do not question the intelligence of us commenters. That said, I do marvel at the evasiveness and obfuscation of our comments. Your tolerance and patience is, uh, admirable. I sometimes think that I'm reading Habermas, a master obfuscationist of our time. But, no, most contributors are clearer in their expressions---when they choose to be so. Here's a thought: philosophy (or science, or?...) is not a game---it is a means toward improvement of the human condition. Anything less is vanity. I'm hungry right now---hunger fogs the mind. That must be MY current problem.

Guest

Friday, November 15, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

When art imitates life, we

When art imitates life, we are amused---enthralled---entertained. There is an upcoming media event concerning the Challenger deaths of 1986. I had been watching the "trailers" for this show, wondering who would be portrayed and in what way. Today, part of the mystery was revealed. William Hurt will act the part of Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist who investigated the Challenger debacle, and died in 1988. It is all rather old now and Feynman's findings were simple enough: rubber, plasticity and cold temperature. But, it is a media event, after all---people have been paid; commerce has been appeased, and the intrepid astronauts are irretrievably dead. Hmmmmph. Feynman would be laughing, if he were not irretrievably dead. Science IS dark sometimes. But, we make it so for the least of reasons. January 28, 1986 was my birthday. At that time, I had never heard of Richard Feynman. Since then, I have heard of so much more. Well, you'll have that...

Guest

Friday, December 27, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Thanks for the intro, James,

Thanks for the intro, Ken, and good luck with the Community. 
We've had some mention of the tree of knowledge of good and evil metaphor for our emergence as a curious species bent on finding things out, responsible, through our capacity to choose, for our application of the knowledge thus gained.  So far as we know we're the only such species around, so it seems reasonable to intuit that this is what we should principally focus on.  We can believe this pursuit of knowledge of the natural world is what we're here for.  If we are to hold anything sacred, that would be it.
There's some evidence increasing knowledge of the world and its workings is working well for us - ref Stephen Pinker's 'The Better Angels of Our Nature' - but one way or the other, it's what we do.  Let's get on with enjoying the quest and  decline invitations to agonize about it.
Hugh

Guest

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