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The Dangers of Trusting Scientists with Science

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Even if you’re not as ardent a fanatic as I am of Michael Crichton, you’ve at least heard of the movie, Jurassic Park, based on his novel of the same title if you’ve spent any amount of time in human society since 1993.  For you cave-dwellers, Jurassic Park, like many of Crichton’s books, begins with a fictional, but not inconceivable advance in science followed inevitably by unforeseen chaos.  Specifically, the DNA of dinosaurs is extracted from prehistoric, blood-sucking insects preserved in amber.  These genetic blueprints are then used to reconstruct the terrible lizards and fill a paleontological zoo.  But the dinosaurs cannot be contained when an unexpected hurricane hits, and control of Jurassic Park is lost by its creators to disastrous effects.

While thoroughly entertaining his audience, Crichton forces us to face our own naivety.  He reminds us that our capacity for foresight is greatly limited by pride, ignorance, and an appetite for recognition.  This lesson is particularly relevant to the sciences as discoveries are modes of societal and environmental change that may be positive or negative, anticipated or unanticipated.  The negative consequences of scientific advancements may not be as obvious or immediate as an unleashed tyrannosaur, but subtle effects can be just as devastating.  I’m sure global climate change, for example, didn’t remotely occur to the inventors of the internal combustion engine.

At its origins, science can be distilled to an attempt to understand cause-effect relationships.  We have an increasing ability to decipher causes of observable effects, but if we can’t predict the effects of our own actions, can we be trusted with this scientific power?  Negative physical and ethical consequences are never a scientist’s intention, but if he or she is blinded by the immediate gratification of fame or money or simply neglects to look, they are likely.

I think scientists, especially those in fields which attempt to control any phenomena which occur naturally (e.g. genetics), should proceed with caution.  One of the fatal flaws of the Jurassic Park project was its confidentiality.  Transparency allows for unbiased minds to predict consequences of scientific research.  Perhaps through forums like science blogs, the public should be allowed to give input every step of the way.  While a small group of scientists desperate for discovery may overlook potential consequences of their findings, an informed public is more apt to foresee them.

  1. January 25, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    I think you bring up an interesting and ongoing debate about the ethics of genetic science and DNA. Even if we can manipulate DNA, how far should we go? In Crichton’s book he points this point out through the characters and their troubles with prehistoric dinosaurs when the zoo goes awry, and so gives us his answer to the question. But what about examples from today’s modern times?

    For example, science has given us the ability to genetically alter foods (genetically modified food) so that crops become more resistant to disease, pests, and other afflictions they suffer from. However, the trade-off is unknown human health risks and new environmental hazards. (Here is a link to an article explaining more about the risks of genetic foods. http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php).

    For all the pros and cons of genetic science, where do we draw the line?

  2. Madeline Driscoll-Miller
    January 26, 2012 at 3:41 am

    As for the question of where the ultimate limit of GM food is, we come to the ultimate boundary of where food becomes entirely artificial. That said, there are currently many products on the market (think fruit snacks) that contain nothing of the ingredients they are purported to contain. If this trend were to continue, where would it end? Could we have meat that isn’t meat, vegetables that aren’t vegetables, grains that aren’t grains?
    Although at a base level the idea of eating something that is not what it “should” be is revolting, there are many pros to GM food. There is a vast number of families in the United States today who can’t afford to eat all natural foods, and for whom nutrients would be unattainable without GM foods. Because of these people who depend on it, the possibility of completely eliminating GM is impossible without causing more malnourishment in the US and other countries.
    This leads to the ultimate question of whether eating something that contains all the nutrients of a traditional food, yet is entirely artificial, offends the American populace so much that they can’t stomach it (pun intended).

  3. January 26, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    Although I do believe that being cautious is significant in the art of scientific research, I don’t think it can be generalized as a rule. Some of the world’s greatest discoveries have been a matter or trial and error or even mere accidents. Being cautious may protect us in a physical manner, but science is all about taking risks and enabling persistence. True, Jurassic Park may not have been the safest of parks, but the cloning of genetics was a true phenomenon.

    The public should not be the one to judge others’ discoveries as indecent. While what you say is true, an unbiased outsider might see the consequences far clearer than the researcher, I still imagine that bias is key to potential scientific miracles. Every great scientist has had personal bias in regard to their work. They had all believed what they were working on was no less than revolutionary. Having doubt cross their minds, or having a member of the public discourage them with a lengthy list of consequences , may have led them to discouragement and eventual resignation.

    • January 30, 2012 at 4:28 am

      I completey agree with your theory on caution. In addition to all of the great things we have gained from trial and errors gone right, think of how much knowledge and understsanding we’ve gotten from those gone wrong. That’s not to say that scientist should just blindly conduct experiments without some research, just to see what happens.; but it often our mistakes that help us grow and become more successful in our fields in the future.

      However, in regard to outsider’s opinions, I feel that sometimes it is helpful to have an objective party review or critique our work. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve worked on a project and, after a certain point, had become oblivious to a very obvious mistake. Would an author try to publish a book without having someone edit it first? Probably not. And while no one likes to have their flaws pointed out, it’s important in order to create the best possible end product.

  4. HK
    January 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    You raise a good point. Science is all about taking risks and, sometimes, going against what is popular. Perhaps it is not in advancing science itself that we should be cautious, but in our motivations for doing so. It’s true, in the theoretical case of Jurassic Park, that replicating dinosaur DNA lead to disaster, but I would now argue the first mistake the scientists made was making such advancements for personal gain–to get rich and famous. Philanthropic or simply exploratory science, I think, is much less likely to go wrong. Therefore, caution should be exercised specifically when the motivation is other than to expand human knowledge in a universally beneficial way.

  5. January 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I very much agree with the need for caution in science, but I have a few more philosophical points I’d like to bring up. The first one is that all “bad” things have a way of having very good secondary effects. Think about the atomic bomb. Most people think about these weapons and immediately think “bad, bad, BAD!” However, one eventually realizes that scientific advances with nuclear energy led to the development of nuclear power plants. Another of my favorite examples is war. People tend to think of war as being all bad, but again, it’s lead to the development of the Interstate Highway System, the Internet, a wide array of medicines, and so forth. Again, the point is, bad things aren’t always all that bad!

    Another point I wanted to bring up is that the public is easily spooked and often develops grave misunderstandings with the truth. Take nuclear power plants, for example. Most people think that they pollute too much (haven’t you seen those giant smokestacks?) and that they’re very dangerous. However, the truth is that nuclear power plants don’t pollute at all (they actually only release water vapor) and that they’re very, very safe (contemporary American ones at least, I wouldn’t trust a poorly-designed Soviet one). Anyway, the point is simple: the public is easily scared, and all-too-often develops dangerous misunderstandings.

  6. January 30, 2012 at 2:25 am

    Your post about Jurrassic Park reminded me of a short story I had to read for an english class last semester called “We Ate the Children Last” http://www.highlands.edu/jebishop/MartelWeAte.PDF
    As disturbing as it sounds, this piece of writing made some thematic points that I thought were eerily pertinent in today’s world of discovery and technological advancement. First and foremost, I find it really interesting how authors and filmmakers, such as Michael Crichton, use artistic mediums to influence the perspective of the average person on scientific matters. Although some may say that these films and pieces of writing are too dramatized to be taken seriously, I believe that it is morality and not fact that is at the basis of their intent and that this has as much significance as science does in the modern world. I think that you have identified a very important problem; that perhaps it is the fallacy of human nature and not science that is the most dangerous; certainly the most unpredictable. Although it is much simpler to place blame on science, almost every atrocity committed over the past few centuries can be traced back to a decision made by humans. Greed and corruption are as immeasurable as they are inevitable so one must ask not should we develop this technology but rather how can we ensure that it is used responsibly?
    It is all too easy to get caught up in the novelty of innovation while ignoring its repercussions. It has been determined time and again that the smallest developments can have the most monumental impact. In their eagerness, many people tend to ignore this. What has resulted is a dangerous phenomenon, particularly apparent in the American culture. We always need the newest, the fastest, the greatest, and we need it now. As of yet, the most devastating effects have been drug recalls and various compensations. But who’s to say what will happen a few generations down the line? The truth is, we just don’t know. For thousands of years the human population was relatively static and evolution took an uninterrupted course. There’s no question that the actions of people today are altering it, and who’s to say if its for the better or worse?
    I think that these are important questions to keep in mind, because they pertain to the actions of individuals as much as they do to scientists and researchers. As tempting as it is to get the latest and greatest, caution should always be exercised.

  7. Mitsuhisa Orz
    January 30, 2012 at 2:53 am

    great point with human, nature and technology. I will bring the point about how some of the “revolutionary,” and “useful,” discoveries actually haunts us down after couple years.

    I am not worried with “what,” scientists discover, because as long as it is not put into practice it can not destroy us that easily. it was probably fun discussion for Einstein to talk about the theory of nuclear fusion, until someone thought of making a bomb out of it and play with it like some kind of new toy.
    When such science is put in to practice, we needs to be prepared for the worst case scenario, and actually be able to salvage our self from those worse case scenario. How long did it take for us to realize that damage which the chlorofluorocarbon did to the ozone layer? “know”( wait what?!) effect of the chemical.After couple decades later, some people from the North Pole who were lucky enough to be checking out the ozone layer and found out this huge gap in the ozone layer. Well we all know that without an ozone layer there will be deadly ultraviolet rays from the sky annihilating polar bears. And no polar bears mean no mascot character to raise money to stop global warming.

    Transparency of the information allows the public to interact with the technology and reexamine the probable cause and the effect. I think this is approach to our discovery is extremely important because It may prevent science from killing all of us.

  8. January 30, 2012 at 5:03 am

    Granted what I am about to say is extreme and can be the source of debate, but who would you trust having the knowledge of creating a nuclear bomb? Trained, educated scientists? or the public?

    Yes, I will agree that it is important for those who create to use wise judgement. Can we ensure that each and every scientist wont be placed in the category of “mad”, no, of course not, but I feel much safer knowing that some knowledge is left to those that are educated in the fields of science than the everyday public. Often once the public is given a new creation, that creation has undergone many trials and error. It has been placed under scrutiny and many prior attempts have failed…quite possibly in dangerous ways. If the public were allowed to follow every step of the process, and allowed to have the knowledge before it is safe, then they could try to use the information prematurely, causing harm to themselves and others. Transparency only widens the horizon for dangerous information to be placed in the hands of those who are not qualified to use it.

  9. lexicory
    January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    This is definitely an interesting topic. Very controversial debates these past few decades had been increasingly pointed towards the ethics of science. Perhaps we shouldn’t trust scientists so much with our future. Perhaps we need to hand over the ethics to people who are unbiased. However, this can also be dangerous, because oftentimes they do not know what they are doing either.
    Maybe it is best for no one to venture into that territory. But if no one does, we never know what advances would have been possible for science to make, or what we missed out on. That is one of the reasons it is good that we do at least have in place some type of ethics board for science that ventures into unknown and previously unexplored territory.

  10. Ben Harrison
    January 31, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    I agree that transparency really is key. Seeing as though we have already discussed one movie, I would like to bring up another, 2012. In this film, scientists discover the the Earth’s surface is changing. The temperature of the core is increasing, and the crust is becoming unstable. When faced with a decision, the worlds governments decide the best cause of action would be to build “super-ships”, like the arc from the Bible. The tickets for these safe havens, it is decided, will be sold off to the highest bidder. The general public, on the other hand, are told nothing. Anyone who tries to tell the public is killed, as the mass hysteria that would be caused would jeopardize the project.

    This again, is a place where if the scientists were to have been more transparent, the entire plot would have changed. There is no doubt that some would have died, but if the public knew, there would have been more help in building these ships, possibly meaning there would be more of them.

    In reality, scientists need to be transparant. I am not saying that every single piece of information, regardless of non-importance needs to be shared. The public just needs to know what is going on.

    A real life example would be the Manhattan Project. Obviously, the government couldn’t tell the general public what they were doing under their circumstances. The country was at war, and this was sensitive information. At the same time, however; if something were to have gone wrong and civilians were to have died, the question of transparency would have again come into play.

    It seems to me that the scientists are normally not the ones to blame. They just want to discover new knowledge. The real problem is the governments. The knowledge is worthless to the scientists, once something has been discovered for the first time, it cannot be rediscovered. Governments, on the other hand, would love to have their hands on some piece of new technology.

    So the question is not do we trust our scientists with science, rather it is: do we trust our governments with science?

  1. February 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm

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