Sunday, July 20, 2008

Beware of Scientists

In Eisenhower's farewell address, there is a line that has become iconic, a warning of what the technological powerhouse that is the US economy that helped win WWII could become:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

Again and again this phrase is invoked, tarring (with justification aplenty) the defense industry and the business of warcraft.

Another line, mostly forgotten, chills me to my core as a scientist: holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Ike hit the nail on the head.

There are great dangers when scientists become activists. One is that activism is far easier, and often more socially rewarding than science, and so becomes an end in itself, pushing the science to the rear, ironically betraying the only real reason anyone would have to listen to a scientist.

Another is that advocacy requires taking a stand in a political framework. Reversing oneself is damned near impossible in this context. Scientists, no matter how hard-headed, or committed to a scientific position they become, are always expected to defer to new data. But politically, any wavering diminishes one's rhetorical and persuasive currency, and must be avoided, whatever the contradictions. This is also deadly to science.

Finally (and by finally, I only mean for the purposes of this post. One can go on and on with reasons why activism poisons science), activism by a scientist implies something utterly illogical in many cases- namely, that knowing what is happening implies that one is competent to judge whether it is good, bad or indifferent, and that once this judgment is made, that the activist has any clue what to do about the situation.

Scientists tend to be fascists, in a limited sense of the term. I know this statement might irk the hell out of many of my friends that strive for liberal political enlightenment and social justice. But many of the good people in science that I know would not think twice about taking away any manner of freedom or choice when they believe that the scientific evidence suggests a best course of action. Some have been bold enough to say, in front of God and everybody, that it is important to know when to favor effectiveness over accuracy, if the cause is urgent and noble.

I think about the eugenics movement. Once the Nazis discredited the idea, it was conveniently forgotten that many of the leading scientific and intellectual lights of the early 20th century were strong advocates for sterilization of 'undesirables', including minorities. They had the data, the models, and the best interests of everyone at heart. And they were being scientific. Who could oppose that?

Science is the best tool we have for understanding stuff. But it is inadequate to the task of deciding what the stuff, or the understanding of it, means.


At Thursday, August 21, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello David,

Have you ever worked at the national High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Florida State University, in Tallahassee, FL ?

Steven Mays
Oral Care Technologies, Inc.

At Thursday, August 21, 2008, Blogger David Eaton said...

I did, as a postdoc. I really loved it there, but I got an industrial offer that I couldn't refuse. I miss it- it was always something new and interesting. Industry is good, too, but the pressure is entirely different.


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