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Aug 04 2005

Scientists’ Achilles heel

I was reading an article the other day about how, during the World War II, the US government assembled a team of anthropologists to investigate whether there were any fundamental differences between the Japanese “race” and white people which could be exploited to wage biological warfare that would harm them only.

The anthropologists found no differences and that particular war plan was abandoned. This is consistent with our modern scientific consensus that “race” has no biological markers and only makes sense as a social and cultural construct.

But the interesting point is that the anthropologists were told to not consider the ethical implications of their work, and that ethical issues would be taken into account by others when decisions on implementing the biological weapons were made. And presumably, the anthropologists went along with that.

This is the Achilles heel of science, the fact that so much of our work can be easily twisted to serve ends that we might not approve of. And yet we do it anyway. The allure of science is such that it draws in people to work on problems that could, with a few slight modifications, be used to harm innocent people.

Physicists are perhaps the most culpable. After all, we have been responsible for the invention and development of atomic weapons that, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million people. And when one counts the deaths from ore conventional weapons that physicists have helped bring into being, the numbers run probably into the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

(Some physicists have refused to go along with this. Physics Professor Charles Schwartz at the University of California, Berkeley felt that university federal-funded science (especially physics) was so closely tied to the Pentagon that he refused to ask for grants and started to advise physics students on how to avoid getting sucked into making the Faustian bargain with the military machine. This seriously hampered his career but he stuck to it.)

How can physicists do our research and still sleep at night, knowing the purposes for which it might be used? I think we do the same thing that the anthropologists did. We avoid thinking about the ethics of our actions and hope that others will take ethics into account in due course at the appropriate time. We hope that policy makers will not take advantage of the science we develop for evil purposes, although time and again that hope has proven to be ill-founded. Or we persuade ourselves that while we may be doing something evil, we do it in the cause of preventing an even greater evil. Or we say that on balance science does more good than evil and has saved millions of lives in other ways. (A few of us may actually believe that developing weapons is a good thing and suffer no angst at all.)

All these things are true and they do provide some consolation. But they never quite wash away all the blood on our hands and I think that we physicists justifiably bear a burden of guilt that academics in other disciplines such as (say) history or English or music do not.

In his memoir A Mathematician’s Apology, written in 1940, G. H. Hardy takes pride in working on pure mathematics because he felt that it was “useless.” By this, he did not mean that it was of no value (he loved the beauty of the subject) but that he felt that, unlike applied mathematics, his field could not be used for evil purposes, that it had no applications at all to the outside world. But time has proved him wrong, and mathematics results that might have been considered too esoteric to have any real usefulness then are now being used in all areas.

It is probably safe to say that there is no area of science or mathematics that is immune from potential misuse. Apart from avoiding science altogether, perhaps our only option is to simultaneously work to prevent governments from using our work for destructive purposes.

POST SCRIPT

The Knight Ridder newspapers say that President Bush has endorsed the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in schools. This should not be too much of a surprise. He has been saying similar things in the past.

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