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 atomic theory. The decision to build the bomb was taken by politicians, not scientists. Should scientists on their own ever be entitled to make such decisions? For the German eugenicists, there should have been a conflict between their responsibilities as scientists and as citizens.
8. How, then, should scientists behave when faced with a conflict between their responsibilities as researchers and their responsibility to those for whom they work? Should a scientist in government employment allow his or her superiors to keep the dangers of eating certain foods secret from the public? Similarly, what is the ethical position of a scientist working for a chemical company who believes a product is dangerous, yet whose employment contract requires confidentiality about the nature of the research? In both cases, one should not underestimate the problems in hazard assessment, in itself a complex business. The problem is no different to that of anyone, for example an accountant, who discovers corruption: if no action is taken after reporting the matter to his or her superiors, the individual must make a very difficult decision. Scientists, just like everyone else, have to try not to become the unquestioning tools of their employers. Genetic Pornography
9. The very term “genetic engineering” conjures up the image of Frankenstein and his monster – Mary Shelley was the unintentional evil fairy godmother of genetics – a tradition well-known in literature (Brave New World, The Island of Dr Moreau and so on), and most recently manifested by the likes of Jurassic Park and Godzilla. The media are aware of this and often report what I regard as genetic pornography – reports dressed up to titillate and frighten. A nasty example was a widely disseminated picture of a mouse with a “human” ear on its back – not a human ear at all but a piece of cartilage-like material. Newspapers print sensational and unjustified headlines, such as the “Frankenstein foods” idiocy surrounding genetically modified organisms in the United Kingdom.
10. To apply genetic engineering requires considerable knowledge and, even more importantly, money, which in many cases is hard for scientists to come by. Indeed, for the public sector the expense of the applications of genetics and molecular biology can open up difficult choices: new medical treatments, requiring complex technology, cannot be given to all. There has to be some principle of rationing, and this poses serious moral and ethical dilemmas much more worthy of consideration than those of genetic engineering and the like.
Dangers of Genetics
11. So what dangers does genetics pose to society? “Bioethics” is a growth industry that purports to address this question, but one should regard this field with caution, as bioethicists have a vested interest in finding difficulties. Nevertheless, it has made some valuable contributions, including advice on experiments on human embryos in the United Kingdom and on the rights of fetuses. But advances in genetics raise few new ethical issues – there are no new ethical issues in relation to the current hysteria over cloning.
12. Some of the common fears about cloning are little more than science fiction at present, for example the danger of producing enormous numbers of genetically identical individuals. It is amusing to watch moralists swing from denying that genes have an important effect on intelligence or behavior to saying that a cloned individual’s behavior will be entirely determined by the individual’s genetic make-up. At present, the risk of human cloning leading to abnormalities is high and so it should not be attempted, and I hope no mother would be so unwise as to become involved. Gene therapy – introducing genes to cure a genetic disease such as cystic fibrosis – has risks, as do all new medical treatments. There may well be problems with insurance and testing, but are these any different from those related to someone considered to be at increased risk of contracting AIDS or cancer?
13. Genetically modified foods have raised extensive public concern, and there seems no alternative but to rely on regulatory bodies to assess their safety (as is the case with other foods.) The consumer is entitled to make a choice, and making a satisfactory choice requires trust or knowledge. But that depends on everyone sticking to the rules on quality control and full disclosure of what is in the food; the role of legislators is to make sure that these rules are rigorously followed. As with the licensing of medicines, each new genetically modified food must be considered individually. Science commissioned by a government and carried out in-house in government research labs is not appropriate when the results have important implications for public health and government policy. It is essential in doing science to expose all one’s acquired knowledge to criticism by others. The main lesson to be learned from the experience with BSE is that openness is all important.
14. Other fears related to the so-called tyranny of knowledge which, claims Ian Kennedy, arises through the choices it forces on us “for which none of us is prepared spiritually or intellectually”. Thus, couples may be faced with difficult choices about prenatal diagnosis of genetic diseases: this could lead to choices about whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, or whether to inform siblings of a possible genetic risk of which they are not aware. There are problems, but I believe that one must not underestimate people’s capacity to deal with difficult choices when they understand the issues. Ultimately, the choice as to whether to seek knowledge rests with the individual. Most ethical issues in medicine are best resolved by considering the rights of the people involved to determine their own futures.
15. Are there areas of research that are so socially sensitive that they should be avoided, even proscribed? One possible area is the genetic basis of intelligence, and particularly the possible link between race and intelligence. Are there, as the literary critic George Steiner has argued, “certain orders of truth which would infect the marrow of politics and would poison beyond all cure the already tense relations between social classes and these communities?” In short, are there doors in front of current research that should be marked “Too dangerous to open”?
16. I realize the dangers, but I cherish the openness of scientific investigation too much to put up such a notice. I stand by the distinction between knowledge of the world and how it is used. So I must answer Steiner’s question in the negative, provided of course that scientists fulfill their social obligations. The better understanding we have of the world, the better chance we have of making a just society. One should not abandon the possibility of using a scientific idea to do good because one could use the same idea to do bad. There is no knowledge that is not susceptible to manipulation for evil purposes.
17. Once one begins to censor the acquisition of objective knowledge, one is on the most slippery slope of all. Scientists cannot easily predict the social and technological implication of research. It was once argued that radio waves would have no practical applications, and Lord Rutherford famously said that the application of atomic energy was moonshine. Those investigating the resistance of certain bacteria to viral infection did not predict the discovery of restriction enzymes, an indispensable tool for cutting up DNA and hence the basis of genetic engineering.
18. To those who doubt whether the public or politicians are capable of making the “correct” decisions about science and its applications, I commend the advice of Thomas Jefferson: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their direction.”
19. But how do we ensure that the public are involved in decision-making, and that scientists, doctors, engineers, bioethicists and other experts, who must be involved, do not appropriate decision-making for themselves? How do we ensure that scientists take on the social obligation of making the implications of their work public? We must rely on our democratic institutions: elected representatives; a free, vigorous and even responsible media, affected groups and the researchers themselves. National and international councils that can assess the ethical issues relating to the applications of science and promote public debate are no doubt valuable. But one wonders what such a committee would have said if the public had been offered a convenient form of transport, but at the cost, in the United Kingdom alone, of more than 3,000 lives per year, a quarter of a million injured and the untold damage of pollution. Where are the car-ethicists?