The Standing Invitation

When Not To Let The Skies Fall

with 2 comments

The search for scientific knowledge is a glorious and essential enterprise. But is it always? Are there some topics for scientific enquiry that are morally wrong to pursue? Are there situations where it might be irresponsible or harmful even to ask a question?

This breaks down into two questions:

1) Are there some experiments the carrying out of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

2) Are there some experiments the outcome of which is harmful, even if it gives us the truth?

The first question is so easy it’s uninteresting. Of course there are limits to how far a scientist can justifiably go in the pursuit of knowledge – just like there are limits to what a businessman can do in the pursuit of money, or a policeman in the pursuit of criminals. A scientist might want to know how long a virus takes to kill a child; but to deliberately infect the child and stand there with a stopwatch would be totally unacceptable. Being a scientist does not excuse you from social responsibilities and obligations.

So question 1 is easy. But what about question 2? Are there questions we should not answer, because it is better to be ignorant than know the truth?

One might be tempted to quote the phrase from antiquity, “Do justice and let the skies fall.” But this is a cop-out. Sometimes knowing the truth about something is actually measurably harmful. There might be good medical reasons for giving a patient a placebo for pain management; informing the patient that it is a placebo might inflict harm on the patient.

This is perhaps a special case. Nevertheless, a scientist must be aware of the consequences of his actions, even if the only action is inquiry. In a society in which racism is prevalent, investigation into correlations between race and intelligence might be used as ammunition for white supremacists. Investigation into the potency of a new strain of virus might cause a panic that harms more people than the knowledge saves.

Ultimately, the truth is worth knowing precisely because it is true. It is a deeply flawed society that can’t handle some unpleasant truths, or that misinterprets truths so badly that people get hurt for no logical reason; and yet that is the society in which we live, unjust, dangerous and full of misconceptions. To proceed blindly in any activity ­– scientific or not – without acknowledging this fact is deeply irresponsible.

Much is made of the need to educate the public about science, and I can’t agree more. Life is made so much richer by understanding, and knowledge is good for the soul. But I feel that what is needed today is not to teach people facts, but to teach people method – not what scientists know, but how they think. Facts about race or risk are less dangerous to a public that understands statistics, that knows what a randomised controlled trial is. There is no better armour for harsh truths.


Written by The S I

September 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thought provoking as always. I’m hooked!

    P McG

    September 4, 2011 at 10:45 am

    • Hey McG! Glad you like it. I’m in China now collecting ideas for new posts… a very productive use of my time.

      The S I

      September 4, 2011 at 11:44 am

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