Last column I painted a grim picture of science’s dark side. A trend toward diabolical creativity began with the atom bomb in 1945 and has only accelerated since then. But it’s not just weapons of mechanized death that cause the problem. Science has long demanded that it be separate from ordinary morality. Medicine marches on unscathed after a drug like Thalidomide produces thousands of deformed babies. Pesticides march on after the serious ecological damage of DDT. Surgeries that have never been properly tested, like the radical mastectomy, thrive as standard practice for decades.

Is amoral science the same as good science?
Almost every scientist thinks so. Their rationale is that injecting issues of right and wrong impedes the free flow of ideas and stifles progress. One never knows where a new discovery will lead, and so judging it in advance may block a tremendous benefit somewhere down the road. As proof, one can point to the suppression of stem-cell research under the Bush administration, which was an irrational decision based on narrow religious values. When President Obama wiped that ban off the books in his first few days in office, it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.
But was it really the same with the atom bomb, DDT, and a host of toxic chemicals still seeping into the soil from various industrial processes? Harm isn’t that hard to predict, and yet out of fear and arrogance, science insists on its right to develop any and every technology that can be imagined. The future holds the dark promise of weapons and toxins worse than anything we have today. When the government bans one dangerous innovation, that simply spurs researchers to invent the next drug, insecticide, or artificial hormone that will elude regulators.
Now that I have recapitulated the grim picture, what can we do about it?
As part of President Obama’s call to a new sense of responsibility, science needs to become more humane, safe, cautious, and humble. There is value in living with Nature and nurturing the planet — almost everyone now agrees — but how can we nurture anything while at the same time threatening life on Earth through toxic technologies?
The big mistake that science has made is leaving out the human factor. In the name of objectivity, science has forgotten subjectivity, or turned it into an enemy. The minute you bring up a simple fact, that every scientist is deeply involved as a human being with his research, skeptics accuse you of being on the side of superstition and charlatanism. That’s like saying that if you point out flaws in the Church, you are an atheist.
Science is deeply subjective. Researchers have goals based on personal values. They are driven by competition, money, status, and prestige. No one can reasonably dispute that. By the same token, scientists know when they are in disturbing territory. The inventors of the atomic bomb tried to suppress their fears, and when the weapon turned out to be unimaginably worse than anyone ever supposed, many physicists felt deep pangs of regret for moving the world into a new age of destruction and terror. Yet the ethos of amorality forced them to move ahead, as if science automatically outweighs all human objections.
Today we have committees on scientific ethics, but these dispense very weak tea, little more than a wringing of hands. The general pattern is that a technology is developed first and worried about afterwards, when it’s too late. Few people thinks it’s right to clone human beings, for example, but we all sit on our hands waiting for that shoe to drop. As surely it will. It’s only a matter of time before the first cloned baby is plastered across the front pages of the tabloids. Just as it’s only a matter of time before the next toxic spill, the next horrifying bomb, the next deadly side effect of drugs.
We need to realize that the subjective side of science is just as important as the objective side. When researchers come to a dangerous area, they rationalize that if they don’t proceed forward, a competitor in Europe, Korea, or Japan will get there first. But that’s like saying that a person should shoplift in the department store because someone else will, or that one should shoot down the enemy because the next soldier will. Moral choices are always personal, and the big problem isn’t who is going to shoot the enemy but why anybody should.
Why should anybody pursue diabolical creativity? I know there are gray areas where one can’t make a clear moral choice. Yet the truth is that chemical companies, the pharmaceutical giants, and the weapons industry march through moral barricades that would stop any ethical person. Weapons of mechanized death are wrong to begin with. So is the cult of new and ever more risky drugs. For every advance on the dark side of science, something better is abandoned. Wholesale reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers means that you have abandoned taking care of the environment. The unstoppable flood of pharmaceuticals fosters the abandonment of natural medicine, prevention, and wellness. So before we continue to worship blindly at the altar of scientific progress, we need to stop and consider what kind of existence we actually want 20, 30, 50 years from now. The moral choices we make today will determine how healthy the planet is tomorrow. In other words, science can’t be given immunity from the shift in values that is happening this very moment.
Originally published in San Francisco Chronicle
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