The ethical responsibility of scientists

Sometimes, we humans get a cultural belief or concept stuck in our collective heads, something typically called a meme, and therefore think that this has importance solely because it’s repeated. Some sociologists have expressed the idea that this is exactly what culture is, and there’s an interesting theory that memes actually go through a process of natural selection. That’s not what I’m addressing here, though; what I’m examining is one of the more prevalent ones, which is, “Do scientists bear the ethical responsibility for those things that they create or discover?”

While this came into vogue very strongly with the advent of “the nuclear age” and the detonation of the first atomic bomb, it’s actually older than that, and examples abound throughout history. Before the Enlightenment, scientists were occasionally persecuted, and prosecuted, for daring to present evidence that went against church precepts; there’s a famous cartoon illustration of Darwin as an ape; and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley may have introduced the idea of the ‘mad scientist’ with her Frankenstein book, tellingly subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Science fiction literature toyed with the subgenre, but it was the motion picture industry that nurtured this idea into some kind of supposedly-poignant social commentary.

That last phrase may sound a little derogatory in nature, and it’s intended to be. The viewing of technological achievement in terms of the warfare or aggression that it may assist is quite sparse – save for how often ‘scientists’ receive this castigation. Most notably is how often the event mentioned previously, the creation of the fission bomb, is considered the pinnacle of shortsightedness, but we see plenty of the attitude today with the frothing rants about genetically modified ‘Frankenfoods.’ I have yet to see anyone bitching about gunpowder or the machine gun, napalm or submarines, catapults or the jet turbine – even when all of these were developed with warfare in mind, and most of them still serve that primary purpose.

Overall, however, the attitude seems to be that, before developing any new understanding of energy, or even biology, that scientists bear the responsibility of predicting just what use anyone in the future may wish to put these towards. Scientists, it would seem, are expected to be both prescient and complete in their understanding of human nature, or stop their investigations into physics entirely in favor of… well, who knows? Underlying this would seem to be the idea that technology itself can be good or bad in nature, a mistake far too commonly made.

It’s easy to see atomic weapons in this way, provided that one thinks in childlike terms anyway. The nasty effects of radiation sickness complement the wholesale destruction of which these weapons are considered capable, usually in ignorance of several important factors. The first is that, the weapons have only been used twice, three days apart, over sixty years ago. The second is that, in terms of destruction, countless bombing campaigns in the same war produced exponentially higher effects – it’s really hard to argue that one bomb is somehow more irresponsible than a handful that produce the same effect.

But the biggest two factors have the most bearing and are completely ignored. The development of atomic weapons within the Manhattan Project was in direct response to the same efforts being made in Germany, and were specifically undertaken to ensure that the Nazis were not the only power to possess the capability. The attitude about science suddenly takes on different meanings when it’s contemplated in terms of both nationalism and protection, and most of the scientists working on the projects left high-level positions in research to ‘serve their country,’ something that we find commendable when it’s undertaken by 18-year-old recruits with no developed sense of ethics nor understanding of world conflict. That Nazi Germany fixated on the wrong approach and achieved nothing is not the fault of anyone who actually succeeded.

The second important consideration regarding the use of these weapons requires another bit of perspective. While the Third Reich had collapsed, Japan was continuing its efforts unabated, and showed every sign of pursuing its goals until it achieved either Pacific dominance or total destruction; the cultural attitude of Japan in that time was well-known, and was frequently displayed. Japanese soldiers did not surrender: surrender was more shameful than death. The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were demonstrations that destruction was going to be the only outcome if this outlook was maintained. Important here is that this gambit worked; the alternative would have been numerous raids on the Japanese mainland that would have resulted in many times the casualties, including among the Allied Forces. The bombs brought about peace in the most effective method available to the Allies at the time, and immediately, too. They have not been used since. So, how does this place the ethics of the creators?

It bears noting that J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, was openly distressed about both the potential of the weapons and his own hand in them, perhaps indeed recognizing that political figures haven’t always been the best judges of how such power should be used. On the other hand, Edward Teller, who was instrumental in multiplying the released energy for the subsequent fusion bomb (a distinction worth knowing,) campaigned strenuously for the peacetime uses of such processes, not as weapons but as tools. Whether he did this to cement his name as father of a new approach to energy, or through his own guilt over the destructive nature of atomic weapons, is openly speculative. And I’ve remarked before about the possibility that atomic weapons actually reduced the amount of warfare in the latter half of the twentieth century.

And then we come to the other example I opened with, that of genetically-modified organisms (usually meaning grains,) or GMO. The attitudes about this are all over the map, exacerbated by the largest amount of ignorance and misinformation that we’ve seen since religion became popular, but again, nearly everyone who speaks of the horrors of such activities puts the blame on scientists. First off, the inability to distinguish between genetic research and corporations that market new genetic strains has a lot to do with this, and shows a stunning amount of ignorance. Much higher levels of ignorance, though, are demonstrated by the numerous espoused perils that are either rumors or strictly imaginary, never evidenced in any form; fear-mongering raised to cult status. That virtually everyone who rants about GMO cannot even begin to describe what it entails is embarrassing for our species, to be honest.

Let’s get a couple of things straight. Genetic modification has been taking place since the dawn of life – that’s close to four billion years. Directed genetic modification has been taking place for the last several thousand years, once humans noticed the patterns that were visible during reproduction of domesticated animals and plants, and began experimenting – every dog or horse, every food crop or decorative plant, is the result of human-directed genetic modification. And we do indeed see the horrors of this, especially in animal breeds with serious health and physiological issues. Most of them we openly ignore because we want pugs with short noses and spindly-legged horses for racing, but the bare truth is, nature would have weeded these issues out.

GMO is the result of recognizing how portions of the gene contribute to certain traits, and thinking that we could probably keep the good bits without having to deal with the bad ones. Instead of breeding together two examples of wheat with preferred traits, and having to retain the flaws they had at the same time, the genes are spliced in fragments to achieve just the selected traits. Natural selection can and does accomplish this all by itself, but much slower. Nor are the genes that are spliced some kind of chemical creation or nuclear mutation, but simply portions of already existing genes – traits that nature already produced. The basic premise is, “Pick the best, leave behind the not-so-good” – the same exact attitude displayed by everyone in the produce department of their grocery store. Obviously, if we can increase the number of ideal examples and minimize the poor ones, harvests are more productive, land is more efficient, and the energy of farming is optimized.

Are there unintended consequences? Sure! The same can be said for everything that humans do, so if this is an issue, lock yourself in a dark closet and try to ignore the consequences of that. But are these unintended consequences going to result in mutations that somehow take over, or turn into something dangerous, or whatever the imagined fears of activists might be? No. Pure and simple, no – because that’s not how genes or mutations work, even remotely. If it was, we’d be seeing it from nature all by itself. There are real concerns, for instance, that pestilential insects or microbes will quickly develop new strains in response to modified crops – but that’s true regardless, and again, they’re not going to become superbugs. The concern is over the short effectiveness of any new crop against the amount of time and effort to develop it. The protestors who bring up issues such as antibiotic resistant bacteria in hospitals, introduced species harming the ecological balance, or the corporate tactics of Monsanto, are talking about entirely unrelated topics – ones that exist with or without genetic modification.

Throughout all this, and many other instances besides, sits this strange assumption that scientists are somehow another species or something, perhaps a secret cabal – one where every scientist has the same attitude, approach, and goals. Therefore, one can talk about ‘scientists’ as a collective body, instead of it being a ridiculously broad term for individuals who do research. Yet every one is solely human, and within this broad category sits every attitude and mindset that we find in every other walk of life – and competence and failings too. Then we have the assumption that these brainiacs remain oblivious to the consequences of their actions, intent only on pursuing some narrow goal, when five seconds of thought (which apparently is a stretch for many who offer their opinions) would reveal that someone who works closely in any given field is guaranteed to know every consequence of their actions far better than someone who, for instance, gets their knowledge of mutations from comic books.

So let me return to the idea that I stated briefly above. Knowledge itself, regardless of what it is, is not good or bad, and cannot be. The same can be said for people. Only actions are good or bad. The pursuit of knowledge is one of our highest callings as a species, and has resulted in the remarkable standards that we have now – even if you’re not presently reading this on a wireless tablet computer, you certainly can. While some aspects of knowledge can indeed be put to uses we’re embarrassed or horrified over later, this is not a function of the knowledge, but the people making those actions (note, too, how often this is political in nature.) Nobody could possibly have the ability to predict what anyone else might get up to with this, much less everyone. Nor is it even worth considering that some form of knowledge should be avoided or abandoned because it may eventually produce something bad; this can be true of anything. Just because some quaint phrase has been repeated more than once doesn’t mean it has originated with the slightest application of rational thought. Making any decisions, but most especially ethical considerations, on something as feeble as catchphrases or movie tropes is a rather frightening thing for our species to engage in.