Posted by: Green Knight | May 17, 2012

Science and Society

I’ve been studying various branches of science my whole life. Whenever a kid picks up a rock and looks at it instead of just throwing it at another kid, there’s science going on. Whenever someone like my friend Donna looks at a bank of clouds and doesn’t just describe what they resemble, but wonders why they’re all flat on the bottom, that’s science going on too. Curiosity may lead to injuries, but also to learning, which is the basis of scientific knowledge (lit stove = HOT. a lesson in thermodynamics. stepping off cliff = OUCH. lesson in gravity.) Repeating experiments for verification is standard, but requires a bit of masochism, as well as gloves and padding for the next attempt.

We hear all sorts of discussions about whether science should consider morality. Nope. Science is what it is, the pursuit of knowledge. There are no grey areas. In itself, it’s impartial. Anthropogenic global warming is happening, or it isn’t. Sulfuric acid burns you, or it doesn’t. Moral judgements should be informed by accurate, up-to-date science, but science itself is about finding out how things work, whether or not people are pleased with the results. You can’t be informed without information. Science is a constantly evolving and self-critical process to keep that info as-up-to date as possible.

The above being said, should scientists consider morality? Sure. That, though, all depends on what standards and morals are prevalent in the society and culture going on around where the discoveries are being made. Leonardo took most of his notes left-handed and backwards, to avoid persecution. Darwin didn’t publish his ideas for decades. Newton was a bit pompous with his fellow fellows of the Royal Society, but was otherwise a weird hermit; he didn’t exactly court public attention. Galileo was like me, perhaps a bit TOO honest for his time, but he at least avoided getting burned at the stake. Giordano Bruno wasn’t so lucky.

Where we tend to get into trouble is when society refuses to face the facts, or scientific evidence is suppressed or tweaked by politicians, or the scientists are worried about their grant money and don’t push their findings as hard as they should. “That dam’s about to break,” often gets the response “nah, it’s fine, you must be hallucinating,” and then you get what happened at Buffalo Creek in 1972, or the TVA breach in Tennessee in 2008, or the 93 million gallon spill of radioactive slurry that occurred a month before Three Mile Island in 1979, which heavily impacted the Navajo reservation, but didn’t get much coverage because “hell, it’s just a bunch of Indians.” The Church Rock spill was hotter than TMI, and I work with the First Americans, so that pisses me off.

When the first atmospheric atomic/nuclear weapon test was conducted in 1945 (Trinity, code name “Mike,” I guess it sounds friendly), many serious scientists were concerned that it might actually ignite and burn off all the oxygen in the atmosphere over the entire planet. But they did it anyway; boys with their toys. I think we’ve gotten better since then, but still not very effective in calming the uninformed public; witness the fears about HAARP causing earthquakes, or the Large Hadron Collider creating a black hole that will swallow the earth. Clue for ya, nothing we can ever do will destroy the earth (and as the comic-book character the Tick said, “that’s where I keep all my stuff!”) But we could certainly make it uninhabitable for ourselves and other large animals. Gaia will restore the balance with microbes, as always.

So, in light of all of the above, I refer you to a couple of upcoming webcasts by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that I orbit. There’s one today, from 4-7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, being done on the east coast, and another on the west coast (of the US; sorry, international followers, for not clarifying that…but wait, i just DID!) on June 13th, same time but perhaps Pacific time for that one. Anyhoo, the details can be found at: http://www.ucsusa.org/center-for-science-and-democracy/?utm_source=SP&utm_medium=more&utm_campaign=more-csd-05-15-12. They’re launching what they call the Center for Science and Democracy. I like the sound of that, although there hasn’t been a true democracy on this planet since ancient Greece, and look what they did to Socrates.

image courtesy of Mark A. Hicks and the Discovery Channel

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