The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
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25-09-2011, 07:13 AM
 
The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
I have written about the “Beauty of Science” before, now I want to write about the dark side. Almost like “the dark side of the force” in Star Wars, scientists are often warned about the seductive nature of science in the service of evil and insanity.

Best example is the development of the atomic bomb. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists were horrified by what they had done (as if it was not predictable from the start) and started forming committees and submitting petitions against further research. Oppenheimer was the primary spokesman for the group, in violent opposition with Edward Teller who wanted to go ahead with the “Super” which was the code name for the hydrogen bomb.

In addition to the ethical concerns, the project seemed doomed from the technical point of view, due to the millions of degrees of temperature required to initiate fusion.

Quoting from Wikipedia:

Quote:In 1951, however, Edward Teller and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam developed what became known as the Teller-Ulam design for a hydrogen bomb.[127] This new design seemed technically feasible and Oppenheimer changed his opinion about developing the weapon. As he later recalled:

"The program we had in 1949 was a tortured thing that you could well argue did not make a great deal of technical sense. It was therefore possible to argue that you did not want it even if you could have it. The program in 1951 was technically so sweet that you could not argue about that. The issues became purely the military, the political and the humane problems of what you were going to do about it once you had it.”

(my emphasis)

Another example is Fritz Haber, German chemist who received the Nobel Prize in 1918.

Quoting from Wikipedia again:

Quote:Haber played a major role in the development of chemical warfare in World War I. Part of this work included the development of gas masks with absorbent filters. In addition to leading the teams developing chlorine gas and other deadly gases for use in trench warfare, Haber was on hand personally to aid in its release despite its proscription by the Hague Convention of 1907 (to which Germany was a signatory). Future Nobel laureates James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn served as gas troops in Haber's unit.

No scientist or engineer can resist the allure of a clever design. Personally, I think that the concept and the engineering of cruise missiles are beautiful, from the technical point of view. It is almost as if the weapon was alive and had a mind of its own. Of course, if it was in my power, I would destroy all weapons and related inventions and I was NEVER even remotely tempted to participate in their development.

I listed these examples to get some feedback: how do you feel about science, considering both the light and the dark sides of it.
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25-09-2011, 09:07 AM
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
We have to keep remembering that science is no more a separate entity than is religion. It's a human activity. As such, it is practiced by human beings with human characteristics, virtues, vices, accomplishments, failings, knowledge and delusions, inspirations and blind-spots. And it is practiced in the context of human societies, serving the requirements, and bound by the value systems of societies; controlled by the ruling elite, feared and celebrated by the laity. Science can be no better and no worse than the people whose tool it is.

It's not the mean god I have trouble with - it's the people who worship a mean god.
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25-09-2011, 09:22 AM
 
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
(25-09-2011 09:07 AM)Peterkin Wrote:  Science can be no better and no worse than the people whose tool it is.

The point I was trying to make, Peterkin, is the following: If the public wants to understand the danger in science, they have to be aware of the psychology of scientists who are in love with their science. Once scientists are aware of something possible, they just have to know, they have to try.

For example, during the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, one scientist raised the possibility of the chain reaction igniting the Earth's atmosphere and burning it all off. Furious calculations followed (mostly by Teller) at the end of which they reassured themselves that this could never happen. Yet, serious, genius-caliber scientist were alarmed by the possibility. What if the calculations were wrong?

In order to protect us from the dark side, society should create a safe, well-motivated (for the common good, education and knowledge) environment for scientific research, in universities as it used to be, where money and power is not allowed to be a motivation.
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25-09-2011, 01:12 PM
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
Science is never bad, the research on the atomic bomb was extraordinarily important milestone in history.

The information science creates can be misused, but what cant?
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25-09-2011, 01:54 PM
 
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
(25-09-2011 01:12 PM)mysticjbyrd Wrote:  Science is never bad, the research on the atomic bomb was extraordinarily important milestone in history.

The information science creates can be misused, but what cant?

That's all true, mysticjbyrd, the question is what safeguard should society consider, what laws should be passed, what changes should be made to minimize the danger of science being misused?

For example, should universities be forbidden to accept grants from military and/or industry? Should the government allocate funding to universities that would enable them to do basic research, without strings attached? You don't have to motivate scientists to do research (or other common-good projects), they are the most motivated people on Earth.

Here is a funny example of how science is bastardized:

After the successful test of the atomic bombs (and destruction of 2 cities), a top-ranking general approached Richard Feynman with the following proposition: "we would like a little gizmo attached to our tanks that converts sand to oil so we could use it in desert warfare. We have everything else worked out, including the motorized scoop that picks up the sand and transfers it to your box, we just need that box to convert the sand to oil and then we can move the oil to the fuel tank. UNLIMITED FUNDS for the project!"

You see what I mean?

What could be done to prevent unlimited funds offered for such idiocy and offer it instead for fusion research that would solve almost all of our energy problems (or other common-good projects)?
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25-09-2011, 01:55 PM
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
I don't think that science is a problem, only the mighty people who misuse it.
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25-09-2011, 01:56 PM
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
Research that leads to the discovery of new information can be used for both good and evil purposes. The discovery of radiation has led to modern science breakthroughs that save lives and simultaneously created weapons that take them away. In researching the age of the Earth, the lead scientist (I can't recall his name) realized the pervasiveness and dangerous nature of lead. This lead him (no pun intended) to begin the campaign to eliminate lead from gasoline.

Evolve
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25-09-2011, 02:02 PM
 
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
Yes, I know that (tell me something I didn't know! Tongue) -- so how do you answer the questions I raised in my previous post?
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25-09-2011, 02:34 PM (This post was last modified: 25-09-2011 02:45 PM by Peterkin.)
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
(25-09-2011 09:22 AM)Zatamon Wrote:  The point I was trying to make, Peterkin, is the following: If the public wants to understand the danger in science, they have to be aware of the psychology of scientists who are in love with their science. Once they are aware of something possible, they just have to know, they have to try.

Who is the public? How can the average citizen understand the psychology of someone with twice his own IQ, when he doesn't even understand his own? And who is there to warn him of the danger, except scientists themselves?
Besides, when the public is warned of possible consequences... like, say "Nuclear power generation can result in disaster, thus:" and even if the media dutifully report a simple version of the China syndrome, and then some fathead comes on the screen and says, "Without nuclear power, you might have to give up air-conditioning," guess how the public votes. Show the public pictures of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and they'll still vote for air conditioning. Maybe not in all countries, just this one?

Quote:For example, during the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, one scientist raised the possibility of the chain reaction igniting the Earth's atmosphere and burning it all off. Furious calculations followed (mostly by Teller) at the end of which they reassured themselves that this could never happen. Yet, serious, genius-caliber scientist were alarmed by the possibility. What if the calculations were wrong?

I'm pretty sure the public never heard about that. The bosses wanted it done, and, lo, it was done. Most research, while it's going on, is totally unknown to the public.
Even were this kind of thing not top secret, i wonder how many citizens would opt for taking whatever risk, if it means our side wins a war.
Most people can't or won't take a longer view and realize that who won a war is significant for a generation, maybe two - until the next war, or change of political climate.

Quote:In order to protect us from the dark side, society should create a safe, well-motivated (for the common good, education and knowledge) environment for scientific research, in universities as it used to be, where money and power is not allowed to be a motivation.

Of course.
It will have to be overseen by a political agency that allocates the funds, but that agency can't be allowed to fall under the influence of any interest-group, nor of the military. This can be ensured through transparency, multi-partisanship, and frequent changes of personnel. The day-to-day administration of projects will still have to be left to scientists. Again, an oversight committee without vested interest in a given project, and lots of recirculation would be some safeguard.
If enough citizens are well informed and care enough to insist.

Afterthought: To make the safeguards much better, the political oversight agency should be international, as well. It would be very nice to see various research stations, like the one in space, visited by scientists from all over the world, who would then take information back home and publish every single result - successful and unsuccessful. Actually, something like is happening in areas other than weapons and drug research: people sharing ideas freely over the internet. maybe it's a trend. But i'm not holding my breath for massive wikileaks of those two vital scientific realms.

It's not the mean god I have trouble with - it's the people who worship a mean god.
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25-09-2011, 02:39 PM
RE: The dark side of science -- how do you feel about it?
Zatamon, sorry, but... the heading of this thread is much too provocative. You know that science isn't the problem, society is. So why do you have to give this thread that name?
I really am sorry, I like your threads, but this one... Tongue
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