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"It is very dangerous to try picking and choosing which truths we dare acknowledge."
January 10, 2009 8:37 AM   Subscribe

"The more we understand why we demonise certain scientific advances, the better we will be able to decide whether some areas of research are so sensitive they should always remain off limits to science." Is Science Out of Control?
posted by tybeet (60 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
No.
posted by killdevil at 8:38 AM on January 10, 2009 [16 favorites]


The power of this approach can be seen in the changing attitudes of the British public to the creation of human-animal hybrids, according to Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. This research involves removing DNA from an animal egg, substituting human DNA and then allowing the embryo to develop for 14 days before harvesting stem cells for research into diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. Two years ago, public consultations revealed widespread moral unease about such work, driven primarily by the yuk response. So in December 2006, the British government issued a draft bill that would make it illegal.

However, the scientists involved believed this was a bad decision that would close a promising area of research, and decided to challenge the issue head-on. "For two years scientists repeatedly briefed journalists and explained to the public what this research involves and why they want to do it, all without over-hyping the science," says Fox, who helped arrange many of these meetings. Gradually public perceptions of the research changed from repugnance based on ill-informed notions about chimeras to an understanding of the lifesaving aims of the work. Earlier this year the bill was changed to allow the creation of human-animal hybrids and now looks set to pass into law. "Opinion polls say the public now accepts this research and parliament has voted for it. It's a fantastic story," says Fox, and one to which scientists who work in ethically contentious fields should pay heed.


Wow, rational debate and careful explanation without hyping actually won one?
posted by Artw at 8:49 AM on January 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was always amazed at the number of LHC-opposing folks who, at some point in their rants, would descend into "Scientists will never be God!" and "They'll never create life like God can!" (news flash to them about all of the autocatalyzing reaction sets). Stem cells and anything which might bear on the origins of the Universe freak out the God-shouters; genetic engineering of livestock and crops gets the crunchy Granola types in an uproar.

I would just like everyone who opposes stem cells and various other science bits to sign for it. And forever be denied any medical treatments or technology based on what they opposed. I think that's more than fair. You must now shop at Whole Foods for the rest of your life and make use of dentures while the rest of us grow our teeth back.

Science isn't out of control, but I think the people who stand to benefit from it are.
posted by adipocere at 8:52 AM on January 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


This research involves removing DNA from an animal egg, substituting human DNA and then allowing the embryo to develop for 14 days before harvesting stem cells for research into diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.

I'm confused - why not just let human embryos grow for 2 weeks before harvesting them for stem cells? Seems like a more direct route.
posted by TypographicalError at 8:53 AM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think they really want any old human DNA there.

Also, see the entire article.
posted by Artw at 8:56 AM on January 10, 2009


Artw: I don't think they really want any old human DNA there.

I don't understand your meaning.

Also, see the entire article.

Hey, if you can convince people that human/animal hybridization and MUUUURDER is okay, why not just the latter?
posted by TypographicalError at 9:00 AM on January 10, 2009


"You deny people the right to modify the child, but if they're going to be the most terrible parents in the world you say, 'All right, go ahead.' This is absolute moral confusion," Wolpert says.

I don't know who he's thinking of that gung-ho in favor of terrible parenting. No one, I would imagine, with the possible exception of terrible parents. But how would a nation stop likely horrific parents from pro-creating? There's no workable solution that doesn't involve forced sterilization, mandatory abortion or chastity belts. And which committee is tasked with assessing the (presumably compulsory) psychological assessments to determine who is going to be a bad parent? In short: straw man. No one likes bad parenting, but there is nothing that can be done to prevent it; we can only respond to it once it happens. (If Wolpert is proposing that we stop bad parents from pro-creating, I'd like to hear that proposal. In reality, he says "All right, go ahead" in the same ways and to the same extent that the rest of us do.)

It is possible, however--in fact, quite easy--to pass a law that would keep parents from genetically modifying their children. All this boils down to is that there are some things we can't control and others we can, so let's focus on the areas where legislative responses are possible.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:02 AM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I have no idea why I tend to put a hyphen in "procreating". Must be a defective grammar gene.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:05 AM on January 10, 2009


Do not play God

Who's playing?
posted by fleetmouse at 9:10 AM on January 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


Before commenting, read the article. It says very early on that "playing god" is shorthand for scientifically based ethical concerns, not pandering to religious concerns:
"Leaving aside special-interest attitudes such as the fundamentalist Christian denial of evolution, many controversies over scientific advances are based on ethical concerns."
posted by boo_radley at 9:17 AM on January 10, 2009


Interesting question, if you replace the charge of "playing God" with "tempting the law of unforeseen consequences."

Scientific progress often involves some type of risk. Just ask Nobel. There is certainly a need for morality or ethics in science, and from experience generally I think that the scientific community is made up of many thoughtful, sensitive individuals. But there are also commercial and political powers at play, and the impetus for corruption is certainly there. Certainly some science is done for short term benefits with long term terrible results.

So the basic question of this article isn't completely screwy. There is some overlap, for instance, between biological experiments and practices that are protested for "moral reasons" (ie stem cell, genetic engineering, animal testing) and also which are dangerous for the possibility for unforeseen risks. In such cases, one might see moral and knee-jerk (yuk) reactions to such science as a kind of canary in the coal mine, forcing the scientific community to take a moment and fully consider and explain the benefits and possible risks of their work.

One hopes that the result is a broad conversation like the one Artw reposts above. Certrainly there is the danger of the tail wagging the dog, but it's what we have to work with. At times, the burden of proof will fall on the scientists.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:19 AM on January 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Earlier this year the bill was changed to allow the creation of human-animal hybrids and now looks set to pass into law.

Do we really need laws to simply allow things now?
posted by adamdschneider at 9:21 AM on January 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


This research involves removing DNA from an animal egg, substituting human DNA and then allowing the embryo to develop for 14 days before harvesting stem cells for research into diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.

I'm confused - why not just let human embryos grow for 2 weeks before harvesting them for stem cells? Seems like a more direct route.


They want to grow cells that have the DNA of Parkinson's disease patients. Taking the DNA from an adult patient and transferring it into an animal egg is evidently seen as better than the alternatives:
1) Human cloning.
2) Breeding Parkinson's patients together to get the embryos you suggest.
posted by nowonmai at 9:30 AM on January 10, 2009


...they should always remain off limits to science

Nothing should remain "off limits" to science. Knowledge is not the problem. The problems, when they arise, do so in the application of said knowledge, or in the application of the application of said knowledge. Ignorance of truth is not the solution to the poor interpretation of it.
posted by tempestuoso at 9:34 AM on January 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


I like the flat, unquestioned statements. "Some things are sacred." No, no they're not.

Nothing is true; all is permitted.
posted by adipocere at 9:41 AM on January 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


The far reaches of our cave, beyond this line I shall inscribe on the ground, shall always be off-limits and a mystery into which your flickering torches of reasons cannot and should not penetrate, into which your eyes shall not peer.

The dark regions of the cave beyond this line shall forever be the exclusive realm only of myself and whatever other Shaman I shall appoint my successor, a place only for our priestly rituals essential to pleasing the Gods and securing Their protection of our tribe, for ever and ever amen!
-- Inscription found in the Lascaux Cave, next to line drawn scratched in the ground and underneath a ritualistic drawing of a bull, and dated to circa 16,000 Years Before Present.

The inscription is found about a third of the way into the cave from its entrance, and similar inscriptions and lines demarcating the realm of mystery are repeated every several yards further back into the cave, which each additional inscription in a different and smaller hand, each dating about two centuries after, or closer to the present time, than the inscription before it.
posted by orthogonality at 9:42 AM on January 10, 2009 [16 favorites]


it's been out of control since august 6, 1945
posted by pyramid termite at 9:43 AM on January 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


orthogonality- interesting quote- do you know what language that would have been in or any references to the quote for further reading?
posted by Gratishades at 10:14 AM on January 10, 2009


You must now shop at Whole Foods for the rest of your life and make use of dentures while the rest of us grow our teeth back.

Okay, sure, I'll agree to shop at Whole Foods (and my local food farmers' market) for the rest of my life, if you agree to stop genetically modified crops from spreading their pollen and contaminating organic crops. And to stop the antiobiotic-resistant bacteria largely caused by factory farms from spreading into my social networks and infecting my friends. And to stop biotech companies from trying to market terminator seeds so poor Third World farmers can no longer save their seeds for the next year. Deal?
posted by overglow at 10:24 AM on January 10, 2009 [11 favorites]


Gratishades writes "do you know what language that would have been in or any references to the quote for further reading?"

It's a Holy Mystery, into which we should not further inquire. "Scientists" claim that writing itself is only about 5000 years old, and so there could be no such inscriptions, but I think you'll agree that is just indicative of the limits of science.
posted by orthogonality at 10:24 AM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Scientists just need to re-brand what they do from science to the War on Error.
posted by srboisvert at 10:35 AM on January 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


overglow, what products contain the terminator gene?
posted by topynate at 11:05 AM on January 10, 2009


Oh good luck holding back science. If you do that, all that means is that the research will be done in countries where they have even less respect for human life. Yeah, let's leave it to China to figure this stuff out - because they'd never do anything bad with it, right?

The fact is that no science is evil. It's all in how you use it. I always laugh when people are like, "Oh, if only we had never figured out nuclear fission, this world would be such a better place!" What a crock. The fact is, there is no possible world where we didn't figure out nuclear fission. We figured out everything leading up to that discovery; discovery of fission was inevitable. Unless everyone in the world becomes Amish and hides there head in the sand, there is no possible way to hold back science and technology.

The smart thing to do is to fund the research legitimately, and then regulate the hell out of it. Consult scientists, philosophy professors, religious figures, and even the average Joe to determine what we should be able to do with it. And then use it to advance humanity, make further scientific discoveries, and, if possible, improve the average person's lot in life. That's what technology should be for, and it's the only sensible course of action.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:20 AM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


tempestuoso: Nothing should remain "off limits" to science. Knowledge is not the problem. The problems, when they arise, do so in the application of said knowledge, or in the application of the application of said knowledge. Ignorance of truth is not the solution to the poor interpretation of it.

In theory I might agree with this, but the problem is that this ideal of the pursuit of pure knowledge unfettered by other considerations just doesn't really happen in the real world. A scientific discovery that can be used for military or commercial purposes will be used that way, and as such I don't think it makes sense to talk about these things as if they occur in some Platonic realm of pure ideals- indeed, in many cases scientific research is directly funded by military or corporate entities, and thus the knowledge is pursued specifically so it may be applied to a certain purpose. And as a result of that, there are certain inventions that IMO simply make the world a worse place, and it's hard to imagine them doing anything else but that- nuclear weapons and terminator genes come immediately to mind. I don't know how things like those can be prevented, and perhaps they can't, but it seems to me that a "scientific inquiry is always good" outlook amounts to dodging the question.


adipocere: I like the flat, unquestioned statements. "Some things are sacred." No, no they're not.

Nothing is true; all is permitted.


Is that really what you think? Would you say, then, that there's nothing sacred about human life, or human rights, and that "all is permitted" there?
posted by a louis wain cat at 11:22 AM on January 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


the creation of human-animal hybrids, according to Fiona Fox
Fiona Fox: Furry, refugee from StarFox, or sinister human-animal hybrid out to legitimise her own kind? She can issue press releases, provide a quote, sure, but you ought to see her hunt down chickens.
posted by davemee at 11:24 AM on January 10, 2009


The fact is that no science is evil.
posted by Nonce at 11:27 AM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


The fact is that no science is evil.

You're misconstruing my point. But to prevent further misconceptions, change that sentence in my original comment to "The fact is that no scientific discovery is evil."

That should set the literal-minded at ease.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:33 AM on January 10, 2009


Well, yes, science is out of control, thankfully. Or who'd trust you to control it?
posted by Skeptic at 11:38 AM on January 10, 2009


Lead-in for the article:

WHAT would our forebears have made of test-tube babies, microwave ovens, organ transplants, CCTV and iPhones?

My guess: "Wow, neat! Um, where are the flying cars?"
posted by Malor at 11:40 AM on January 10, 2009


There's more than one kind of moral quandary involved in scientific research, and it's sort of important to keep them separate.

There are the safety issues. Will this discovery be used by someone to destroy me or something that I hold dear? Think fission. It's tempting to adopt an all-or-nothing response to this question, to absolve a researcher of any responsibility, or to forbid potentially dangerous research, but it can get complicated.

There are the ethical decisions involved in research itself. Controversy around stem cells involves this to some extent. Is it cool that our medical knowledge is built on a continent of dead animals? Not just the ugly ones, but fluffy ones too. If we're not careful, won't someone want to experiment on unwilling people? How do we stop that? When we fail to stop it, what do we do about the knowledge gained?

But most interesting to me are the researches that might shatter ideas that we hold most dear. When we make a computer that seems like a person, but can step through its code, how will that affect ideas that we have about free will? Is cloning people just the beginning step down a path that will challenge our ideas about personality and identity? When people can choose the skin color of their child, what decisions will we have to make about race-based privilege and our right to decide who our child is-- maybe at cost to that child?

Science has been shattering our values for as long as its been practiced (ie, forever). Religions have had to adapt (or, sometimes, fight back), and not just in superficial ways. Discoveries can have real, life-changing effects on how we see the world, other people, ourselves, and it's impossible to forsee how those effects are going to play out. In 500 years, people won't have the same morality that we have today, and science will bear some of the blame. If we could see it, we wouldn't agree with the future's norms. But it feels foolish to judge their values by the standard of our own.
posted by nathan v at 12:05 PM on January 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


I find it interesting that there are no ethics requirements in science and engineering curricula. (I know I never took anything close to that in 15 years of high school and university.)

Instead of trying to put limits on what people are allowed to think, wouldn't it be better to teach them to think through consequences as well? If scientists as a class have a flaw, it's obsession with their field to the exclusion of everything else. All we have to do is improve the way we raise our scientists.

But then again, all of society's problems could be solved by fixing our educational system.
posted by phliar at 12:08 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is Science Out of Control?

In the USA: apparently not.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:27 PM on January 10, 2009


Also, I have no idea why I tend to put a hyphen in "procreating."

Well, you're either pro-creating or you hate babies, AMIRITE?
posted by joe lisboa at 12:29 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Argh, not you per se, but generally -- you know, a false dilemma. Carry on.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:29 PM on January 10, 2009


If there's anything sacred about human life, I have yet to see it, most especially from the people who so often use the word "sacred." Take a look around. Look at your standard religious crusade, or look at the war in Iraq. Sacred? Really? Check out which states are most religious and which states like their death penalties.

Human rights? The "rights" we have, which most people deem self-evident (as a certain document goes), always seem to be dependent on the year, where you are inside a nest of purely arbitrary and invisible lines, and how much money you have. More importantly, these "rights" aren't even agreed upon by people in the same time, place, and financial status — right to life? right to choice? If human rights exist, they most certainly are not a constant, nobody seems to see them the same way, and we have no way to test for them. Nothing is true.

However much we would like this concept to be some kind of pure Platonic identity, it's just not so. One can conceive of some grand atrocity and, within the potential for engineering it, carry it out — no matter how many "rights" oppose it. That has all happened before, and it will all happen again. What we have are the laws of physics deciding what can happen and what cannot happen, and that's it. All is permitted.

How people end up treating each other will probably progress a lot faster as soon as said people stop treating their personal and individual wishes for the way the world "should" work as some kind of externalized, perfect, and unchanging entity that everyone else is simply too deluded to recognize.
posted by adipocere at 12:57 PM on January 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


In 500 years, people won't have the same morality that we have today, and science will bear some of the blame.

Blame? How about applause.
posted by setanor at 12:59 PM on January 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


overglow, what products contain the terminator gene?

If I understand correctly, the terminator gene is the product. The companies sell seeds that are more hardy and produce greater yields to farmers, but it's a dead end. The farmers have to purchase them again the following year, or purchase seeds elsewhere. Vendor lock-in, only not with something minor like computer OSes but the food supply.

It's pretty evil. Not quite the Titicut Follies all over again, but then again, maybe it will be in another hundred years.
posted by Nonce at 1:20 PM on January 10, 2009



You're misconstruing my point. But to prevent further misconceptions, change that sentence in my original comment to "The fact is that no scientific discovery is evil."

That should set the literal-minded at ease.


I really do appreciate and agree with your argument for effective regulation of research. And for the most part, I think the US and EU do a pretty damn good job of that already. I just wanted to post a reminder that there are, in fact, very, very good reasons for the common person on the street to be wary of what is called science that go far beyond the abstract and trivial.
posted by Nonce at 1:23 PM on January 10, 2009


I find it interesting that there are no ethics requirements in science and engineering curricula. (I know I never took anything close to that in 15 years of high school and university.)
I wish I'd gone to your university, because I've had to sit through far too many mandatory courses on ethics and 'responsible conduct of research'.
posted by nowonmai at 2:01 PM on January 10, 2009


If I understand correctly, the terminator gene is the product. The companies sell seeds that are more hardy and produce greater yields to farmers, but it's a dead end. The farmers have to purchase them again the following year, or purchase seeds elsewhere. Vendor lock-in, only not with something minor like computer OSes but the food supply.
Am I right in thinking that these companies would previously have sold F1 hybrid seeds which also have to be repurchased year on year? Because in that case, the terminator genes don't really change much. Wikipedia says: In 1960, 99 percent of all corn planted in the United States, 95 percent of sugar beet, 80 percent of spinach, 80 percent of sunflowers, 62 percent of broccoli, and 60 percent of onions were hybrid.
posted by nowonmai at 2:07 PM on January 10, 2009


Monsanto promised not to commercialise terminator technology (which was actually developed by another company with public funding). No one is selling seeds containing the gene. But overglow linked to an article about a paper written by two employees of Monsanto and Delta, that said it might be a good idea to use the gene (or similar). The articles said this is proof that Monsanto has broken its promise. Nope, or else there'd be commercial products containing the terminator gene, or other sterilizing genes.
posted by topynate at 2:30 PM on January 10, 2009


If I understand correctly, the terminator gene is the product.

I'm not at all certain that Monsanto has ever sold a "Terminator"-gene product. There's no question that they've got the product working in the lab, but there certainly no wide commercial use of it to date. The (vast) majority of the GM crops sold to date are "Roundup-ready", that is herbacide resistant.
posted by bonehead at 2:36 PM on January 10, 2009


orthogonality, I can't find anything about any writing in the Lascaux Cave. References?
posted by ymgve at 2:42 PM on January 10, 2009


I'm not at all certain that Monsanto has ever sold a "Terminator"-gene product.

They make more money not doing so. They really on their patented genes spreading indiscriminately and contaminating public domain crops so that farmers who've elected to not purchase Monsanto seed are nonetheless liable for licensing fees. This Onanistic business model is backed up with trespassing thugs who search for contaminated crops in order to bring lawsuits.

It's not unlike a unit in an apartment building left full of filth and rotting who which, when the infestation spreads to the neighboring units, results in massive lawsuits against the people who tried their best to maintain a sanitary, pest-free environment.

None of this, of course, is a problem of scientific knowledge or research. It's a legislative problem, a legal problem, and the problem of a society that lets businesses avoid responsibility for cleaning up the externalities induced by their business practices.
posted by stet at 3:00 PM on January 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


ymgve: not actually on the walls at the cave, but it's what the priestly class has been telling the rest of us since well before history began. Used to be that the ability to write was sacred, and if you weren't born by the right parents, you would be killed if you learned how to write.

Broad, shared, publicly available knowledge reduces the power of tradition, which reduces the power of hereditary and social hierarchies, which, for some people, is petrifying.
posted by Freen at 3:08 PM on January 10, 2009


None of this, of course, is a problem of scientific knowledge or research. It's a legislative problem, a legal problem, and the problem of a society that lets businesses avoid responsibility for cleaning up the externalities induced by their business practices.

For people who are concerned about these sorts of things, it may not be so easy to disentangle the knowledge with the effect of the knowledge on societies that can't be bothered to utilize it in a humane, considered, thoughtful, sustainable, ethical, and fair manner.
posted by Nonce at 3:34 PM on January 10, 2009


You're not wrong, but I think that it *is* possible to make decisions, as a society, about technology and how it's applied separate from the fact that it is possible. Zoning laws and variances are an example of the sort of thinking that could, theoretically, be applied to changes in technology. I share your pessimism, however.
posted by stet at 4:13 PM on January 10, 2009


science by press release is all to common these days.
posted by brandz at 4:29 PM on January 10, 2009


adipocere: However much we would like this concept to be some kind of pure Platonic identity, it's just not so. One can conceive of some grand atrocity and, within the potential for engineering it, carry it out — no matter how many "rights" oppose it. That has all happened before, and it will all happen again. What we have are the laws of physics deciding what can happen and what cannot happen, and that's it. All is permitted.

In the literal sense, all that may be so. (I'm not using "sacred" in the specific sense of "supernaturally sanctified" here, by the way, and I gathered you weren't either.) Nevertheless, I would rather our societies did have a conception of things like human rights and the value of human life, etc. as "sacred" in a sense, even if there's no Platonic reality to them. (This does not mean a specifically religious idea of it- only that we generally regard certain things as though they were sacred.) The problem with the religious states that you mention is not that they hold to a fiction of human life as sacred, it's that they don't view it as particularly sacred, ultimately- I assume you're thinking of entities like the Taliban, and that seems to me to be a clear case of regarding their concept of divine law as something more sacred than human life. (And it's hardly just religious states, either, as far as the death penalty goes- the government that executes the most people yearly is about as irreligious as it gets.)

And just how far do we really want to take the view that "nothing is true, everything is permitted"? I get the impression- correct me if I'm wrong- that you believe the world would be better if people abandoned their ideologies of what the world should be, and recognized this as reality. The problem is- for one, that viewpoint is itself an ideology of what the world should be, and for another, it is not one that I think would lead to people treating each other better, as you picture. That basic idea that people should treat each other well is just a fiction in the cosmic sense as well, isn't it? After all, nothing is true. What makes you think that if our guiding principle is that "nothing is true, all is permitted", that people will continue to embrace this fiction? Some concept of enlightened self-interest? Maybe that works for those who are relatively powerless, who would be likely to face harsh consequences for behaving as though everything was permitted. Not so much for the powerful, I don't think. Randian dystopia, anyone?

You can argue that this already happens, that the powerful already do whatever they like, but I think they would do much worse if not for some of those fictions and ideologies that you scorn. "Human rights" may an example of such, but those societies that hold a belief in that concept tend to be far better places to live than those that don't. To a great extent, the constraints that our elites have on their behavior exist because of numerous things that are fictions in the cosmic sense, like "human rights", that we have accepted. Though these things may be tragically malleable, I do not think a better world would result from abandoning the belief in them, and that is an enormous understatement.
posted by a louis wain cat at 4:36 PM on January 10, 2009


You're not wrong, but I think that it *is* possible to make decisions, as a society, about technology and how it's applied separate from the fact that it is possible. Zoning laws and variances are an example of the sort of thinking that could, theoretically, be applied to changes in technology. I share your pessimism, however.

Kurt Vonnegut used to bring up his brother a lot within this context. He was an atmospheric scientist who pioneered the use of silver iodide to seed clouds. He often remarked how brilliant his brother was, and how crazy and unkempt his workbench looked (to which he would reply by pointing at his head, "You should see what it looks like in here."). He said that Bernard was the kind of person who was fascinated with science to the point where he would forget everything else.

The concern is that someone like that might end up working for the government on scientific projects designed to do awful things to people, because the ethical considerations take a back seat to science and research. Vonnegut proposed that all scientists should have to study ethics, and that they should all be very much aware of the extent and reach of their work and its impact on others, because even someone like his brother - a kind and thoughtful family man in his personal life - could get carried away and might not think of it otherwise, and the result of their work might end up being death and destruction at the hands of people with the worst motives. Or that someone could accidentally discover something like Ice 9 and someone else lets it loose. Of course, Vonnegut was a Luddite at heart and a curmudgeon, but he was also a humanitarian, and the concerns he raises aren't unfounded. Other people have brought it up, but he made it a major theme of his work. So did CS Lewis, who saw the scientist through the eyes of a Christian intellectual and was troubled for some of the same reasons, but a lot of it came from the trope of the scientist "playing god" and being consumed with and driven by hubris, not an undying curiosity, and the latter to me is the more realistic concern.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:14 PM on January 10, 2009


Ah, you've misread me. You're thinking Taliban, I'm thinking Texas. Recollect a certain professed Christian governor with some strong ideas about what is right and wrong, Karla Faye Tucker, and the mocking "please don't kill me" he uttered. Said governor later goes on to tell the world that God has informed him that a particular war is a good idea. He's also not real keen on the stem cells.

And, also, look at the way I used "should." "Should" isn't a word I use a lot, like "must." It's a word I've been consciously pruning from my thoughts for a very long time. About as close as I get is, "If you want X, Y seems to be what offers you the best path to get there." If I use it, I take great pains to either point out that ought ain't is, or I frame it in the context of "if you want this, that other thing is a prerequisite."

What I stated was that, if the people believe in this stated goal they claim to have ("We would like people to treat one another better"), they might have a more probable outcome for it if they do something different. I don't think this is actually going to happen, given human nature, and I never stated it as my wish. And wishes are not ideologies, in any case, though they can be made into such.

We've gone pretty far afield from my original point, which is that so often, people who clamor to have their lives improved so often stand in the way of it because of dearly held "values" of how the world works, whether it is science or society. It's not an ideology to observe that.
posted by adipocere at 7:39 PM on January 10, 2009


The far reaches of our cave, beyond this line I shall inscribe on the ground, shall always be off-limits and a mystery into which your flickering torches of reasons cannot and should not penetrate, into which your eyes shall not peer.

actually, the mystery was, and is, the OTHER - whether it is abstracted or hunted - whether it be god, or the bull, or deer one needs to hunt to provide for the tribe

it is not the shaman's goal to commit mystification - not to hoodwink others - but to try to touch the inexplicable - what it is to be a deer or a crow, a bull or an eagle

perhaps he doesn't penetrate into this mystery - but with all your knowledge and your equipment, your methods and explanations, neither do you - maybe it can't be done

but at least that 16k year old shaman in the caves knew there was a mystery there

perhaps, now that we pay green pieces of paper for pieces of meat, it seems irrelevant

perhaps you're just not paying attention to the real world around you and the mystery of those who inhabit it with you
posted by pyramid termite at 8:14 PM on January 10, 2009


when nick bostrom says '"It is very dangerous to try picking and choosing which truths we dare acknowledge," does he think it's any less dangerous to pick the system of acknowledgment before you pick the truths? and was science under control before or simply dealing with less genocidal explosions?

the original question 'are some areas of research so sensitive that they should be off limits?' assumes we have a control over the direction of professional research but the article is doubtful. public engagement with research in the UK is ambiguous and there are no clear judicial channels through which to voice opinions or affect outcomes. these guys have been doing some work on how to move public engagement upstream within scientific research but i don't think the issue has really caught fire.

but is engagement and control really the main issue? i think that underlying the scientific and moral absolutisms engendered by talks of 'off limits' is the more difficult but basic question 'does science have limits?' and rather than a judicial question of democratically regulating research it's a philosophical question about why we continue to value and hold to bits and pieces of tradition and religion. now that's an urgent discussion, has been ever since science threatened religion, but i don't hold out much hope in a public consultation.
posted by doobiedoo at 9:32 PM on January 10, 2009


It's a joke, people.
posted by dd42 at 9:45 PM on January 10, 2009


For people who are concerned about these sorts of things, it may not be so easy to disentangle the knowledge with the effect of the knowledge on societies that can't be bothered to utilize it in a humane, considered, thoughtful, sustainable, ethical, and fair manner.

Well, that's kind of the important part, isn't it? It behooves the people who are concerned about these things to do that disentangling.
posted by Amanojaku at 10:17 PM on January 10, 2009


Or it behooves those people to apply pressure to the system until those who are in a position to effect change--elected politicians, for the most part, and the fabulously wealthy here in the US--do so in a way that speaks to their concerns.
posted by Nonce at 6:25 AM on January 11, 2009


I think there is a difference between scientific research and commercialism that is being overlooked. It's one thing to figure out how to do something or how something works; it's an entirely different thing to release that upon the world.

Terminator seeds, f'rinstance. Probably learned a lot of valuable stuff while researching it. Should never, ever have been allowed to be commercialized.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:43 AM on January 11, 2009


GATC

floating in nutrient broth,
cloudy amino soup:
a flesh tennisball
studded with pearl teeth
slowly erupting, waiting for harvesting and implantation;
soon we will do this right in YOUR mouth, but we don't have the necessary trials yet:
interested? just sign this...
it's a brave new world, baby
with corneas and ears growing on the
backs of Norwegian blacks, just
flip a few genetic switches and we're
tapping the power of organic architecture
in a lexan vat;
all patents pending.
posted by exlotuseater at 12:06 PM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think, to a certain extent that we may be coming at this from the wrong angle. While I disagree with much of what I have heard Peter Singer say (I heard him interviewed on the Free Inquiry Podcast, read up a little more), I do agree with him that not only should ethical concerns inform how we proceed and view science, but that science should inform how we view our ethics. While biologically we are the same people who founded our major religions, culturally (at least in the world of those who can access MeFi), we are vastly different.

If cloning and other aspects of science cause us to question our concept of the individual, that may be for the better. If by use of genetic engineering on a species-wide scale we can improve ourselves as a species, I see no reason not to do so. We must be careful that in this that we do not start to treat members of our species as subhuman (well, any more than we do now, but that's a different matter), but if scientific discoveries show us ways to be better people, than we should embrace them.

I'm not advocating transhumanism or anything like that, more that we have this incredible mechanism for obtaining knowledge and verifying it and it seems a shame to not use it to examine ourselves and our path.
posted by Hactar at 1:56 PM on January 11, 2009


Or it behooves those people to apply pressure to the system until those who are in a position to effect change--elected politicians, for the most part, and the fabulously wealthy here in the US--do so in a way that speaks to their concerns.

I can't disagree more. You're arguing for people who may be confused about issues to demand and receive changes based on that faulty understanding. Not all concerns are reasonable, so expecting them all to be catered to or assuaged is both impossible and counterproductive. It should be the valid concerns that are taken seriously, but again: that starts with the people making demands knowing what they're talking about in the first place.

In simpler terms, people who can't disentangle the invention of the hammer from hammer deregulation leading to bloody, hammer-to-the-head murder sprees should not be the people we let make decisions about hammers, no matter how up in arms they might be.

Concern is not a replacement for comprehension.
posted by Amanojaku at 7:40 PM on January 11, 2009


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