Science aims tell us something about nearly everything, from the atoms in our cells to the motions of the stars.
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.]