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Science vs. humanity

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2002

U.S. Tightening Rules on Keeping Scientific Secrets. Ignoring for a moment that keeping scientific secrets is nearly impossible, this article raises a larger question:

“Is science more trouble than it’s worth?” That is, do science’s potential detriments outweigh its positive contributions to society?

Up until now, the answer seems to be a resounding “no”. But the world, she is a changin’. For the first time in the history of the world, a very small group with some scientific knowledge (learned, stolen, or acquired…doesn’t matter how) can destroy a large chunk of the world’s population (millions, if not billions of people) before anyone could stop them. Can science, politics, religion, psychology, etc. keep up with this new threat or do we need to throttle science back to avoid a potential Armageddon?

Reader comments

jkottkeFeb 17, 2002 at 7:42PM

I’m sure there have been many books and articles written on this very question…I’m especially interested in any links to that kind of stuff.

TimFeb 17, 2002 at 8:34PM

I believe another question to ask is how far is our government is willing to go (or have gone) to get or protect these types of secrets.

tamimFeb 17, 2002 at 8:51PM

This is what happens when a person is elected president based on how “smart, better and more experienced” his advisors are, and not what he himself thinks, if he thinks at all. I don’t want to turn this into a anti-Bush anything, but, if you look closely at three recent events: [1] declaring an “axis of evil” that includes Iran with an openly moderate president elected in a democratic election; and North Korea, which at times seems to be run by just as many nitwits and leaders lacking any grasp for critical timing (on the flip side, tremendus comic timing), and a population suffering from poverty, famine and drought. North Korea is so poor, the president had to buy used rusting bicycles from Japan as gifts for every household for his birthday. Most importantly, both Koreas want to unite. Both of them have high level government commissions and departments trying to figure out a way to get back together. There is a minister, akin to a Secretary for Korean Unification, in South Korean government. [2] Bush commissioned a committee to find ways to eradicate Saddam Hussein. This is what everyone else in the world think of America, running the world with CIA proxy and having everyone in cross-hairs of CIA snipers. And now, [3] Restricting transparency of scholarly works. All three are ill advised actions taken by a president overly dependent on “smart, better and more experienced” advisors.

I personally don’t think the restrictions on research papers happened overnight or is a hastily put together reaction to 9/11. This has been cooking for a while. Wen Ho Lee “exposed” the worst kept secret in academia. Many scholars pass on sensitive information, willingly or inadvertantly, via their speeches and essays in various conferences and journals. The government has been trying to figure out a way to stop this leakage.

There are many similar export restrictions already in place. The 128 bit encryption export control, and many other software export control are there to prevent transfer of American scientific secrets. If you go to the download page of Trillian, it says that you can’t (or shouldn’t) download the software if you live in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, among other places. I wonder what armageddon would ensue if super advanced American chat technology landed on the hands of the Axis of Evil!

From a bureaucratic standpoint, the administration and its advisors are assuming that all bio and other scientific and technologial advances are always discovered in America. These are firmly held beliefs of the Rushlimbaugh-talk radio crowd and often reaffirmed by Steven den Beste and hundreds of active participants of his bulletin board in his blog. No computer program is coded, no disease if cured, no surgical procedure is perfected outside the shored of good ol’ USA. With this belief firmly in place, it is easier for the administration to restrict the publication of research papers. We will never need the help of anyone in Europe, Asia or Africa to cure our diseases, fix our limbs or correct the bugs in our software. They don’t need to know what we have cooking. They don’t need to know our black magic.

One immidiate victim of these laws will be the genuine academic researchers in the various American universities. They seek to prove their smarts, and the validity of their hypothesis and researches to their peers. Without the details of how to duplicate the results, many of these smart researchers will not be given their due. Many mediocre researchers will now take advantage of these laws and try to advance their careers with bogus research papers and thesis that an independent group can never verify. What else, other than championing mediocrity, can we expect form other mediocre people?

[I am writing this from the top of my head. Please forgive me for not linking (every other word) to websites proving my point.]

brentFeb 18, 2002 at 1:10AM

you’ve probably already read it, but i would recommend the article in march’s wired called ‘this is not a test.’ it’s pretty interesting - about how very few people will actually have hands-on knowledge to make nuclear weapons by the year 2014 (when our youngest nuke’s shelf life is over).

to the subject at hand - i don’t think there’s an icecube’s chance in hell that politics, socially conscious scientific research, the government, etc. will be able to keep up and hold back the proliferation of military technology. sadly, it comes down to economics. there’s just too much money in this world for secrets not to spread, regardless of efforts made to stop it.

mikeFeb 18, 2002 at 1:18AM

forbidden knowledge may be something that you’re looking for. honestly, i can’t tell, from the reviews, as they’re all rather conflicting. is it a literary critique? a scientific? is it pro-censorship or democracy? i ordered it yesterday, anyway.

Kaushik BanerjeeFeb 18, 2002 at 1:44AM

After the bombing of Hirosima -Nagasaki, there was a lot of debate in the scientific community about the morality of developing / using weapons of mass destuction even if the cause for such deployment is worthy. Apparently many scientists who were originally involved in the Manhattan project spoke up against its use - once they realized the potential of the bomb.

I was looking for an appeal titled “Only Then Shall We Find Courage,” that Einstein wrote in NYT after the bomb was exploded (its kinda famous), when I ran into The Case of Mordechai Vanunu, a 1988 appeal from some illustrous scientists…So most scientists have always been very conflicted about what they have been doing and in all fairness many of them tend to be politically very naive (I dont mean it in a derogatory sense, but they do make lousy politicians) and sometimes try to undo what they have done. I think the right place start looking would be the flurry of literature/soul searching right after second world war before cold war control mechanisms have started working on the academic world.

Another place (not really related directly) to look would be the evolving field of bioethics. They have been wrestling with ethical dilemmas of a different kind for some time. The American Journal of Bioethics loves posting news items that can appear to be morally ambiguous.

Martin SchneiderFeb 18, 2002 at 2:18AM

There was an article in Harper’s about four years ago that was about a high-school kid who made a nuclear reactor in a shed in his backyard. Really fascinating. He was actually kind of a fuckup, but he got interested in it, and decided to do a lot of research. I can’t remember all of it, but he would write letters to like the Naval Dept and such claiming that he was high school teacher who wanted information, things like that. It was astonishing the access he got just doing things like that. Also it never seemed to occur to him that messing around with plutonium etc was in any way harmful to his well being, this despite the fact that he’d done a lot of reading about it. Interesting article, I recommend it.

DennisFeb 18, 2002 at 5:43AM

Here’s an article from The New York Times from last summer, which touches on some of these issues, like the nature of classified documents and the limits of academic freedom. What’s interesting to contemplate is the spectre of the U.S. government using, in essence, extortion (via the threat of withheld funding) to accomplish their objective. In this latest development, the feds so far seem to be soliciting voluntary cooperation in formulating their security guidelines as well as selective self-editing of peer-reviewed journals, but who knows what could happen if the scientific community proves to be recalcitrant, and the administration deems national security just too important?

ErikFeb 18, 2002 at 6:26AM

MOSQUITO and the malaria cure (Qing hao su) found (but not shared) by China is a good example.

BBC - Mosquito Full transcript available…

AndrewFeb 18, 2002 at 8:24AM

No. If the world decides to destroy itself, then so be it. You think we could stop it in the first place?

KarlFeb 18, 2002 at 10:34AM

Yeah, i do, Andrew. I think that the world is rather insane, but I think a lot of it has to do with the stupidity of the general populace. Anyone with a brain doesn’t want to destroy everyone around them, and if they’re like me, they work quietly behind the scenes to do their part.

Joe CrawfordFeb 18, 2002 at 10:53AM

Science, or rather, the scientific method, is merely a mechanism for trying to understand the world. It’s not something you can “shut off” arbitrarily, well, maybe we can impose silence on some of the folks who do science, and when most of the science was being done by government entities around the world perhaps we could shut it off … but in an age with ubiquitous communication, and where most of the scientific inquiry is done by private and corporate entities, we don’t have the option to shut it down.

Ignorance is not bliss.

jkottkeFeb 18, 2002 at 11:49AM

There was an article in Harper’s about four years ago that was about a high-school kid who made a nuclear reactor in a shed in his backyard.

I’ve read that one…here’s the online version of the Tale of the Radioactive Boy Scout.

If the world decides to destroy itself, then so be it. You think we could stop it in the first place?

Sure we could stop it. Man is the only animal on earth that has the capability to either destroy or save himself. Our intelligence gives us that choice and responsibility. The question is: what will we do with that choice?

dbakerFeb 18, 2002 at 1:28PM

I believe that the true question we should be asking ourselves is not whether the possible detriments of science outweighs the benefits, but a subset of three related questions.

1. Is the pace of scientific discovery out-stripping the level of social responsibility that humanity (as a global society) is able to bring to bear with regards to its subsequent use?
2. Does all scientific research fall into a category that demands/requires a level of social responsibility that is outside of our current capabilities (on a global scale), or are there subsets of scientific research that can be allowed to grow unchecked as having no foreseeable negative impact to global society?
3. For those areas of scientific research where it is actually necessary to enforce research/publication restrictions, how do we go about enforcing those restrictions that are put in place, and would there be any easily identifiable situations in which we would be required to bypass these restrictions?

This question shares some very definite relationships to the question of gun control, but leans more toward the idea that instead of restricting current gun use, we should simply not let anyone know of the advances that have been made in gun technology.

vegaFeb 18, 2002 at 1:55PM

An article by Bill Joy in Wired (“Why the future doesn’t need us”) and Michael Dertouzos’s response in Technology Review (“Not by reason alone”)

paulaFeb 18, 2002 at 2:15PM

I’m always amused by this kind of articles. People use to talk about science, economy, markets, politics as a thinking entities with free will, the kind of attributes that only humans have. We tend to forget that those are concept we use as analytical tools to access/understand our reality. Of course, science itself can’t hurt the society, it’s people using science in a bad way the kind of thing we should be afraid of.
I find this kind of reasoning quite dangerous, it could arise questions like the above ones (“is science more trouble than it’s worth?” or “do we need to throttle science back to avoid a potential Armageddon?”). Let’s not forget: it’s not about science, it’s about people taking decisions.

My name is Paula, first time I write here. I probably found this website while looking for people with similar interest. I hope you wonÕt find my comment intrusive.

MathieuFeb 18, 2002 at 3:52PM

It’s not science itself which should be questioned, it’s the way people deal with it. The same hold for so many other topics. A bureaucracy, for instance, is a fairly effective instrument if it only wouldnÕt fail to keep up with those who exploit certain positions. You could also ask: do organizationsÕ omnipresent social costs outweigh the generated economic benefits? I say no. Just as Leonardo da Vinci would probably answer no to the science question.

ShannonFeb 18, 2002 at 6:22PM

Since you’re asking for source documents, I’ll give you one that might be interesting in understanding the challenges facing policy makers. In 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) released a study called Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the Risks. The report deals with how to handle the spread of chemicial, biological, and nuclear weapons and the issue of ‘dual-use technology’ is given some attention.

It’s worth nothing that the OTA was one of the victims of Newt Gingrich’s spending cuts, and that this report was one of its last before the office was closed. Seems a shame, when you consider how valuable this sort of information is to us now.

davidmscFeb 18, 2002 at 6:23PM

“Is science more trouble than it’s worth?”

NO. Without science, technology, etc, I seriously doubt any of us would be here. Science & progress are inevitable and must be encouraged.

neuroproFeb 18, 2002 at 6:56PM

It’s scary when hypocritical lawmakers start to interfere with science. They can stop progress or even reverse it for a while, but humans will achieve what nature’s laws allow them to achieve. Unfortunately that’s also true for the worst, so humankind may indeed self-destruct eventually.

neuroproFeb 18, 2002 at 6:58PM

Dr. Strangelove (modeled on Edward Teller and the nuclear arms’ race) may be an especially intriguing film in this sense.

cecilleFeb 18, 2002 at 7:25PM

“Is science more trouble than it’s worth?” >>> The only way we can stop science is to stop people from thinking. The most effective way to do that is to kill everybody. Are you willing to go that far to ensure that we’re all “safe”?

J LawlessFeb 18, 2002 at 8:43PM

There’s a fair market on paranoia in this country right now. I’d suggest reading up on the Italian Renaissance for an interesting look at the struggles one has to overcome after digging out of a dark age. Best not to go down that route in the first place.

Tom KarloFeb 19, 2002 at 11:03AM

Want to know more about nuclear reactors? Take the $15/hr job as a reactor operator at MIT’s on-campus nuclear reactor. It’s still open.

stevenFeb 20, 2002 at 3:40AM

No. The problem is human greed, fear and hate, rather than science. Science is a positive invention of humans, along with culture, altruism etc., which goes some way to offset human destructiveness. More generally, a scientific, sceptical approach is also helpful when critically questioning the actions of governments or other power interests. Scientists may need to help reign in the power of governments, rather than the other way round. And we’ll need science to solve or alleviate some of the problems we already have - such as climate change.

neuroFeb 20, 2002 at 5:14PM

Yes, Steven, but problems start when scientists
become government bureaucrats and they forget
that they were scientists. If they were scientists.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.