Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: the Limits of Science

Who could stop the mad rush?

This could be from any war. The soldier firing the bullet or scientist who invented the machine gun, the manufacturer, the politician or the public who supported the war, who is responsible?

"I trained my machine gun on their trench and its bullets were raking the parapet. Then over they came, bayonets glistening. In their respirators, which have a large snout in front, they looked like some horrible nightmare."

"All along our trench, rifles and machine guns spoke, our shrapnel was bursting over their heads. They went down in heaps, but new ones took the place of the fallen. Nothing could stop that mad rush. The Germans reached our barbed wire, which had previously been demolished by their shells, then it was bomb against bomb, and the devil for all."

"Suddenly, my head seemed to burst from a loud 'crack' in my ear. Then my head began to swim, throat got dry, and a heavy pressure on the lungs warned me that my helmet was leaking. Turning my gun over to No.2, I changed helmets."

"The trench started to wind like a snake, and sandbags appeared to be floating in the air. The noise was horrible; I sank onto the fire step, needles seemed to be pricking my flesh, then blackness."

"I was awakened by one of my mates removing my smoke helmet. How delicious that cool, fresh air felt in my lungs. A strong wind had arisen and dispersed the gas. They told me that I had been 'out' for three hours; they thought I was dead."

Arthur Empey, who was an American volunteer in British Army, "Gas Attack, 1916"
EyeWitness to History, (1999)

It is impossible to know what is in another's mind when they end their own life. The death of UK Government scientist, Dr David Kelly, last summer sent shockwaves through government circles. It seemed like a protest against government deceit that led Britain to war in Iraq. Dr Kelly had just appeared before a committee of the British Parliament and had denied under intense pressure that he was the source of "those stories."

He was Britain's leading expert on chemical and biological weapons and an employee of the Ministry of Defence. He was leaking information to the BBC, not for personal gain but to tell the truth as he saw it. The subsequent inquiry led by Lord Hutton was to expose inexact reporting by the BBC not government lies, and reveal a man who found it difficult to communicate his feelings to even his closest family.

This goes to the heart of the dilemma facing the scientist. Fathi Habashi's recent article explains that the development of poisonous gas and nuclear arms is the outcome of scientific endeavour. The implication is that scientists have social responsibility for the products of their science. It is evident that Dr Kelly felt he had responsibility beyond his job description. Maybe, his Baha'i faith was the reason.

Before a scientist can step beyond his research and consider the moral basis of their science they need a theory of society. It seems that Dr Kelly had a particular outlook based on religion. Other scientist may have a different faith. These could be at odds with each other. Though, it could be argued that there are basic tenets that are held in common, for example, the sanctity of human life. However, Britain is a consumer society based on liberal values. This rationalist approach does not accept absolute truths but aspires to the greater good.

Otto Hahn expresses (in Habashi's article) such a rationalist (and nationalist) justification for his development of poisonous gas for Germany during World War 1. Maybe, like a soldier in the trenches he wasn't as an individual, a scientist or as a German able to judge the horrific impact of his weapons of mass destruction (see side panel) against the wider needs of the war.

Since 1945 the American have continuously justified the atomic bombs on Japan on the basis of the greater good by shortening the war they saved lives or an example for Stalin to note, revenge for the suicide attack on Pearl Harbour. Similar utilitarian grounds have been used to justify the 'shock and awe' bombing of Iraq and subsequent occupation.

This rationalist approach has been subject to satire at least since Voltaire's Candide. There are those who say will live in the "best of all possible worlds". It has to be fundamental to science that we have imperfect knowledge and that complete understanding is impossible. Uncertainty and chaos is not something to be feared but to be understood and accepted.

Blair on Science

Tony Blair's, the British Prime Minster, address in 2002 to the Royal Society, a body of working scientists founded in 1660, illustrates the point (

"Science is just knowledge. And knowledge can be used by evil people for evil ends. Science doesn't replace moral judgement. It just extends the context of knowledge within which moral judgements are made. It allows us to do more, but it doesn't tell us whether doing more is right or wrong."

At least since Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, knowledge acquisition has been subject to moral judgement. I don't think science or knowledge is morally neutral. Government has supported the technological advancement of warfare rather than poverty reduction. Knowing how to kill people or destroy cities more effectively is not neutral knowledge, is it?

I would contest there is a danger that scientists that conform too closely to the prevailing moral climate imperil scientific discovery. Galileo was necessary to confront the moral authority of the Church; Darwin erred due to his Victorian moral virtues and the use of animals in experiments is resisted today. The recent decision not to build a research centre in Cambridge due to the costs associated with policing anti-vivisection protesters. Is that a moral victory or defeat? A vote in the UK might save the lab mice and sack the scientists. Is this morally the best outcome?

There are further fundamental concerns that need to be addressed before we can draw the lessons of history to help scientist take social responsibility for their work. There is the "eureka" moment that is Archimedes jumping out of his bath, the apple falling on Newton's head, or USA's capture of Iraqi chief scientists. Most science is hard and focussed work. It would be a negation of science to impede these possibilities by a prior closure of a particular field of study.

Not only does this apply to research but how this is actually used and abused, the nature of harm and whether a scientist can judge the specific harm caused, is there a trade off and can the scientist help mitigate the harm. Andrej Sakharov, developer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb is a good example. He became an anti-nuclear campaigner as his judgement changed about his society and the threat posed by the American bomb. Which Sakharov was right?

Dr Victor Frankenstein and his monster have stood as an analogy for moral dilemma of modern science for over 200 years. Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein is driven by scientific ambitions to break the taboos of his age and re-animate the dead. The monster he creates is devoid of moral constraints and is doomed to destroy or to be destroyed. The scientist only realises his moral responsibility once the monster is out of control and loose in society. This is the fundamental concern that individual scientists face. Can they restrain and control the momentum of science for the greatest good? Whatever that might be: Human Cloning; Weapons of Mass Destruction; or Genetically Modified crops.

As for Dr Kelly, he was partially a victim of this dilemma, and finally a victim of his own human fragility. His job to track and monitor the Frankenstein monster of chemical and biological weapons was less science more about politics and engagement with society. Government often uses moral arguments in support of utilitarian actions at best or at least expedient to public opinion.

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Copyright ╘ 2004 by Melvyn Dresner
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