Should Discovery Be Stopped?

The brake on discovery provided by the peer system is arguably a good thing. It preserves some stability in the careers of ‘normal’ scientists, who are very useful to society and to the educational system, and who far outnumber the few innovators who are required to suffer for rocking the boat. And for the world at large, the needless delays and inefficiencies give more time to adapt to the consequences of discovery.

The catalogue of science-related social issues in the early 21st century ranges from the regulation of transgenic crops to criminal applications of the Internet. Most fateful, as usual, are the uses of science in weaponry. ‘We must beware,’ Winston Churchill warned, ‘lest the Stone Age return upon the gleaming wings of science.’

At the height of the Cold War, in 1983, Martin Ryle at Cambridge lamented that he took up radio astronomy to get as far away as possible from any military purposes, only to find his new techniques for making very powerful radio telescopes being perverted (his word) for improving radar and sonar systems. ‘We don’t have to understand the evolution of galaxies,’ he said.

‘I am left at the end of my scientific life,’ Ryle wrote to a Brazilian scientist, ‘with the feeling that it would have been better to have become a farmer in 1945. One can, of course, argue that somebody else would have done it anyway, and so we must face the most fundamental of questions. Should fundamental science (in some areas now, others will emerge later) be stopped?’

That a Nobel Prizewinner could pose such a question gives cause for thought. In some political and religious systems, knowledge has been regarded as dangerous for the state or for faith. The ancient Athenians condoned and indeed rationalized the quest for knowledge. It went hand in hand with such rollicking confidence in human decency and good sense that in their heyday they chose their administrators by lottery from the whole population of male citizens.

In this perspective science is a Grecian gamble, on the proposition that human beings are virtuous enough on the whole to be trusted with fateful knowledge. There is an implication here that scientists are often slow to recognize. Wise decisions about the uses of new knowledge will have to be made by society as a whole, honestly informed about it, and not by the advocacy from scientists who think they know best-however honourable their intentions might be.

Another implication comes from the public perception of science as one big enterprise, regardless of the efforts of specialists to preserve their esoteric distinctions. Researchers had better strive to keep one another honest and open-minded, across all the disciplines. Should science ever turn out to have been a bad bet, and some disaster concocted with its aid overtakes the world, the survivors who burn down the laboratories won’t stop to read the departmental names over the doors.

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