Does society need protecting from scientific advances? Most emphatically not, so long as scientists themselves and their employers are committed to full disclosure of what they know.
1. The idea that knowledge is dangerous is deeply embedded in our culture. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the biblical Tree of Knowledge, and in Milton’s Paradise Lost the serpent addresses the Tree as the “Mother of Science”. The archangel Raphael advises Adam to be “lowly wise” when he tries to question him about the nature of the Universe. Indeed, Western literature is filled with images of scientists meddling with nature, with disastrous results. Scientists are portrayed as a soulless group, unconcerned with ethical issues.
2. But is science in fact dangerous, and do scientists have special social responsibilities? It is essential to recognize that reliable scientific knowledge has no moral or ethical value. Science tells us how the world is: that we are not at the center of the Universe is neither good nor bad, nor is the possibility that genes could influence our intelligence or behavior.
3. Dangers and ethical issues come into play when scientific research is done in practice, for example in experiments involving humans and other animals or when science is applied to technology, or in issues related to safety. There is thus an important distinction between science and technology: between knowledge and understanding on the one hand, and the application of that knowledge to making something, or using it in some practical way, on the other.
4. Science produces ideas about how the world works, whereas the ideas in technology result in usable objects. Technology is much older than science and, unaided by any science, it gave rise to early crafts such as agriculture and metalworking. I would argue that science mad virtually no contribution to technology until the nineteenth century – even the great triumphs of engineering such as the steam engine and Renaissance cathedrals were built with imaginative trial and error, virtually without any impact of science.
5. Whatever new technology is introduced, it is not for scientists to make moral or ethical decisions about its use, as they have no special rights or skills in this regard. There is grave danger in asking scientists to be more socially responsible if they would also be given the right and authority to make such decisions on their own. The social obligations that scientists have, as distinct from those responsibilities they share with all citizens (such as supporting a democratic society and taking care of the rights of others), come from them having access to specialized knowledge of how the world works that is not easily accessible to others. Their obligation is to make public any social implications of their work and its technological applications, and to give some assessment of its reliability. In most areas of science it matters little to the public whether a particular theory is right or wrong, but in some areas, such as human and plant genetics, it matters a great deal.
6. When the facts are examined dispassionately, it is not easy to find cases where scientists have behaved unethically in relation to the public. Contrary to some claims, there is no evidence that they did so either in the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the United Kingdom and elsewhere or in the AIDS blood scandal currently reverberating in France, for example.
7. The most clear case of immorality in scientific research was the eugenics movement. The scientific assumptions behind this were crucial: that most human attributes (desirable and undesirable) are inherited. The scientists concerned completely failed to give an assessment of the reliability of their ideas or sufficiently to consider their implications. On the contrary, and even more blameworthy, their conclusions seem to have been driven by what they saw as desirable social implications. In contrast, the Allied scientists who built the atomic bomb behaved morally, and fulfilled their social obligations by informing their governments about the implications of atomi