The Dangers of Trusting Scientists with Science
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.