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Friday, 16 November, 2001, 17:29 GMT
Science: Is it always for the best?
Science reaches out into every part of our lives through labour saving devices and other advances in medicine.
But although we take much of its benefits for granted, our trust has been rocked by events such as "mad cow disease", or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE).
There has also been widespread suspicion and unease about the rapid progress of biotechnology.
What influence do these devices, ideas and theories have on us?
What unforeseen side-effects of technology have been undesirable?
This Talking Point was suggested by Daren from the UK:
I'd like a debate on science in general and the influence it's having on our society. For example, cars, televisions, mobile phones, the internet, labour saving devices, cloning and other advances in medicine. What influence do these devices, ideas and theories have on us? What unforeseen side-effects of technology have been undesirable?
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This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Naveed Ahmed, UK
It's human nature to discover and invent. The products of mankind aren't always to the benefit of humanity. Weapons, for instance, were invented to hunt for food and clothing but were quickly used in tribal conflicts. Some inventions and discoveries do need to be kept under close guard simply because we can be sure someone will use them against us - anthrax is a case in point here.
As someone who works in medical research, we are often in a situation where a particular technology when developed, could be used for incredible good or terrifying evil.
I believe that the vast majority of scientists, especially in my discipline, strive for the benefit of mankind. There will always be a few however, who want to abuse it (the Italian cloning doctor to name one). Legislation must be put in place to ensure that we all benefit from the good of scientific breakthroughs and not become mired in suspicion and mistrust that a few 'bad eggs' breed.
I was a research scientist before I moved on to other things. Science isn't about 'what's best'. It is about discovering how the universe and everything in it works. While in the lab I made my own moral choices about what research I would do. However there was no way I could prevent anyone else from doing that which I might have thought wrong or damaging. When there are reports of how 'science' is doing this or that, one needn't look far for profit or political motives. Science is science and as such, neither good nor bad. Is water a bad thing because floods and shipwrecks kill?
As a scientist, I believe that it is my responsibility to consider the ramifications of my discoveries. Society will do what it will do, but I as a responsible scientist must point out the potential dangers of adopting any given technology. It may be that I myself decide that a line of inquiry has too much potential for evil use, and I refuse to pursue it. Other scientists might come to a different conclusion about the same technology. The atom bomb is an excellent example - some scientists refused to pursue it, others did pursue it, and society used it without understanding the dreadful consequences.
Science has produced discoveries that have been misused, but what is the alternative? Readers should consider that if it wasn't for science, 99% of them wouldn't be here, life expectancy would be around 30, and that short life would be spent living in a cave struggling to get enough to eat and facing a considerable chance of painful death with every second.
If that's the life you want, there are still a few untamed wildernesses, but I'll stick with the science and it's occasional problems thank you!
Our scientific advances are largely responsible for keeping us at the head of the food chain. Very few scientists have embarked upon research without an altruistic angle to their endeavours. We should be less concerned with what they are doing than we are with the activities of those who might choose to exploit their advances for selfish gain. That is where the problems come in.
As others say it is not science itself which influences our lives it is the use to which it is put. I would suggest that this is something which is frequently determined by individuals other than scientists. Scientists may not necessarily be the only ones who can properly decide on the use of their discoveries, and indeed may not always be the most appropriate ones to do so. However I find the overwhelming influence of non-scientific bodies in determining policies to be less than helpful.
Having worked in the field of transplantation I have too often seen avenues of research effectively halted due to media influence - quite possibly well intentioned but clearly backed by a profound lack of understanding of all the issues involved. Good scientists will seek to discover ALL the evidence relating to their field of interest including that which may disprove their thesis as well as that which supports it. They then weigh all this in the balance and inform it with their own experience - if only all those who influence the use of scientists' output did the same.
Richard Green, UK
Science is always for the best but unfortunately sometimes its discoveries are released into a society ill-equipped to deal with the changes the knowledge those discoveries may bring.
I really don't understand the public's perception of scientists and science in general and why it is always so negative. I am a biochemist who is doing research into osteoarthritis, and maybe one day, in the future my work will have helped towards a cure for this terrible disease. Bearing in mind that I will have been at uni for 7 years by the time I get my PhD, I will earn very little, work hard and still have a tag of being evil because I am a scientist. You never hear of the difficulties scientists have to go through, you just hear about all the bad things they are meant to have done!
Science is a process by which we attempt to form explanations of the fabric of reality. Technology is the use to which this understanding is put, for good or for bad. Confusing one for the other is a common device used to attack science and rationalism in general. Scientists have spent decades defending the project of science, when they could have devoted their energies to increasing our understanding of the universe.
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