How can a scientist square their research decisions with the applications they are put to? Do scientists bear some obligation in respect of the research they conduct? Or is all scientific practice essentially blameless? What are the issues in the ethics of science?
When interviewed in 1965 about the Manhattan Project, the creation of the first atomic bomb, the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer noted his conflicted feelings about his success by making reference to a line in the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita which came to him in connection with this achievement, albeit misremembered. Oppenheimer’s misquote became famous: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
As it happens, humanity has thus far managed to avoid eradicating itself in a sudden nuclear oblivion – a fear that abounded in the short-lived “Atomic age”. Yet there can be no doubt that scientists worked together to create nuclear weapons, the most terrible and destructive force on the planet. Was it ethical for them to do so? All ethics, we now realise, are relative. So to ask if the Manhattan Project was an ethical research project is to ask about the ethics of scientists.
Science, as with most traditions, has its own inherent values. In the case of science in general and scientists in particular, the central value is truth, therefore, from an agent-focussed perspective, the central virtue of ethics is honesty. From a rights-focussed perspective, this commitment to honesty manifests as the unwritten rules of scientific practice that render fabrication of results and plagiarism forbidden and highly disreputable. From an outcome-focussed perspective, scientists are usually not held accountable to the consequences of their research; as long as they have been suitably honest in the conduct and reporting of their research they have done more or less all that is required of them by conventional scientific ethics.
The trouble is, this enshrinement of truth as the central value of science leads to a naive attitude as to the consequences of research. If we are honest about scientific experiments, we must acknowledge a tremendous realm of future events about which we cannot adequately anticipate. Oppenheimer could not have known that forty years after the Manhattan Project, a nuclear power station in Ukraine would explode, contaminating the city of Chernobyl and the surrounding region, and having effects throughout the world. This was a consequence of the early research into nuclear weapons, which were a step on the road to nuclear power. Was Oppenheimer in any way responsible for Chernobyl?
To hold Oppenheimer (and the other scientists in the development of nuclear power) entirely blameless, we must say that knowledge and application are separate. The creation of knowledge is thus rendered inculpable, and only its application can be “evil”. But by this approach, a scientist can research into a biological weapon capable of killing all life on the planet and claim no responsibility when it is eventually employed. This separation of duties into a required commitment to truth and an optional commitment to society or humanity is ludicrous.
But equally ludicrous is to blame Oppenheimer for Chernobyl, which after all he was not directly involved in at all. His contribution to the knowledge that lead to the building of the Chernobyl nuclear power station connects him tangentially, at best, to the disaster that occurred there. One may also argue: if it hadn’t been Oppenheimer, it would have been someone else.
Yet what kind of ethics are we suggesting if the justification for taking an action with the potential for tremendously negative ultimate effects is if I don’t do it, someone else will? Is it really acceptable for someone to conduct research which has as its natural consequence a fatal weapon simply on the grounds that if they didn’t someone else would? This sounds rather akin to the excuse, so often touted in the context of war crimes, that one was only following orders.
The basis of ethics is individual responsibility. If scientists can’t take responsibility for what they choose to research, the natural response from society would be to deny them access to the funding that they need to conduct that research. That this doesn’t happen is a sure indicator of just how addicted to technological progress we have become.
Of course, it is a simplification of the facts to claim that the only aspect of ethics of science that applies is a commitment to honesty. After all, there are ethical guidelines for the treatment of people (and, to a lesser extent, animals) in experiments – such as the requirement that test subjects provide informed consent. Yet science as a field is a long way shy of the kind of commitments we expect from our doctors – informally captured in the phrase “first, do no harm”. It may once have been the case that the potential for abuse was greater from doctors than from scientists, but in our modern world we see disaster scenarios behind every scientific frontier, from genetic engineering to high energy particle physics.
Many of the ways in which the public respond to these issues are reactionary – disproportionate to the matter at hand. But the reason that public outcries against genetic engineering of food and so forth happen is because it is seems to the general public that scientists will not take into account the consequences of their research as a factor in whether or not to pursue it. This inevitably leads to excessive backlash in those cases where the possible problems have the potential to be extremely severe. The scientific community will not and cannot make a commitment to ‘do no harm’ – because no scientist has any greater capacity to predict the future than any non-scientist. Humans are just naturally poor at predicting the future. Just as Oppenheimer could not foresee Chernobyl, no scientist can truly foresee the negative consequences of their research.
But of course, that Oppenheimer could not foresee Chernobyl does not bear on the question of Hiroshima. Oppenheimer could certainly see that what they were making was a bomb, and that this bomb would be used on human targets. It seems that Oppenheimer justified this in his own mind in the belief that the creation of the atomic bomb would necessitate an end to war – in his own words “The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.” He hoped that the threat of nuclear war would drive humanity into global co-operation. Was this hope enough to make it ethical to pursue the research for such a weapon in the first place?
Ultimately, Oppenheimer acknowledged that there was no ethical decision at the root of the Manhattan Project. He said of it: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Here, we have the honest assessment of a scientist: I must conduct my research; what it is used for is a problem only thought about after the fact.
Scientists are reluctant to admit the dangers inherent to unrestricted research. There is a tacit assumption with many scientists that the scientific community – as intelligent, educated men and women – would not instigate research with severe negative consequences, despite the many historical instances to the contrary. An idealised view of science persists in the mind's of many scientists, one which sees science as not only harmless but presumptively beneficial, while other traditions are publicly berated for their hypothetical dangers.
I believe we can stave off the worst disasters that might come out of the scientific process. But we would have a much better chance if we acknowledged that science is not a blameless process, uncovering truth independently of its consequences, but the force feeding the rapacious technological progress that has lead us to a world in which we consume our natural resources in a manner apparently leading to a global disaster of our own creation. What is the cause of the rape of the environment if not the technologies born of our science, and the people that use them?
Now the most urgent voice in this apparent calamity is concerned with global warming, which has become a highly politicised topic. This is a contentious issue, and it goes to the heart of science. Basically: climate scientists mostly agree that we are the cause of a currently small but potentially disastrous greenhouse effect that is warming the planet. Some climate scientists, albeit a minority, disagree. The public is more divided. Who do you believe? There are scientists on both sides, so do you trust the majority or the minority? Do you look at the evidence and make up your own mind? Well, some do the former and some do the latter, but either way there's no way to resolve this issue except by exercising your own freedom of belief.
It's up to you to interpret science. It's up to you to interpret everything.
Here are the facts, as far as I can ascertain. The greenhouse effect is a genuine theory, first reported by French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, and subsequently verified by the Swiss chemist Svante Arrhenius. We have an excellent example of what it can do in the form of the planet Venus, which is a roiling hell world thanks to the positive feedback of a greenhouse effect caused by the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. Venus is believed to have got that way because there was no life there to recycle the carbon dioxide – what keeps our planet so delightfully habitable is in part its diverse ecology which moderates the gas cycle. We're killing off that ecology in a variety of ways, and in a manner far more direct than the global warming we're worrying about.
On the other hand, the evidence for global warming is very slight – the mean temperatures have risen, but the claim that humanity is responsible for this change is quite tenuous and difficult to prove. Crucially, the existence of a majority of climate scientists on one side of the debate doesn't change the fact that climate predictions are very difficult to make. It would be premature to conclude the matter of human-influenced global warming one way or the other, and the threat of disaster is apparently insufficient by itself to force decisive action at this time.
What it comes down to is this: do you trust the climate scientists? In the case of global warming there seems to be no reliable way of establishing the extent of the crisis or the degree of urgency. But the climate scientists aren't the only people warning of the onset of an environmental catastrophe. According to a 1998 survey, 70% of biologists believe we are at the beginning of a mass extinction event, not unlike the ones that killed the dinosaurs and many other earlier forms of life, but this time driven by human activity. We have had at least 36 extinctions in the last century, not counting the species that went extinct before scientists could identify them, and in geological terms that's precipitously rapid. The technological society we have built with the assistance of science is killing off all life on the planet – slowly from our perspective, in the blink of an eye from the viewpoint of the planet itself.
Having said all this, science also carries the potential to rescue us from the very environmental disaster it has given birth to. After all, it is the scientists who have made us aware of the collapse of biodiversity, and there are scientists committed to research into sustainable energy solutions. With co-operation from society, we may yet be able to rescue much of our the ecology of our planet which, I might add, is essential to our continued existence – even the extinction of a small collection of species such as the worms could lead ultimately to our own extinction by collapsing the food web. There is some hope that it won’t come to this, and if not, we will have in part the action of committed scientists to thank, although it will not be the value they have placed upon truth that will have lead us from the brink of catastrophe.
How long can we continue with this situation whereby scientists value truth and only truth, especially in the wake of Kuhn’s realisation that science is not so much a journey towards truth, but rather a process of adaptation and specialisation? What is it that we want science to adapt itself to? Do we even know? Perhaps we need to rethink the ethics of science so that we can position this tradition, with its potential for tremendous benefits, into a better relationship with society... perhaps it is up to society to create the necessary pressures to ensure that science is its servant, and not its master.
Beyond the current catastrophe of environment, and the future crisis that genetic engineering will place squarely at our doorstep, there are further disasters and crises that science will bring about in time, presuming we survive long enough for it to do so. (Not to mention the many other distant threats – such as asteroid impacts – that science could help protect us from if we were to consider such things important.) Given this, we should seriously consider how we wish to proceed with the scientific process. To do that, we must first be willing to talk about the role of science in our societies and decide what kind of future we will try to make.
For translucy, who may have different views on the subject.