PUBLIC AFFAIRS, HUMAN RIGHTS

The Responsible Scientist. The Ottawa Citizen, May 10, 1992.

The obligation for those who know is to explain the reality of science to society

Scientists are citizens possessed of an important form of literacy. It take the form of numeracy and an acquaintance with what, in more innocent times, was call "the scientific method."

This literacy is a privilege given to us by society. Society lavished wealth upon us in the form of training and then accorded us, to a small degree, a place of honor - patting us on the back for doing the job we most enjoy. All of this imposes an obligation.

Indeed, anybody who can do so much as read has an obligation to those who cannot. For example, they should be obliged, when in the presence of the illiterate, to read out loud warning signs that say "caution."

What I am saying about the responsibility of the scientist, I have tested in an important laboratory: the lecture theatre. I recall that when I talked to students about this subject, they said: "But surely our obligations go beyond those of citizens with special privileges of education? Should we not, as scientists, see to it that science develops in a way that is beneficial, along directions most likely to have humane and advantageous consequences?"

I have to tell them that I do not know of my way of doing that, and I think it is grossly misleading to pretend otherwise.

If, for example, one responds to the fact that nuclear weapons have put the future of mankind in jeopardy by saying that nuclear research should be terminated or slowed down, one damages science. To some this will seem to be a price worth paying. But it will not appear so when they realize that they have bought nothing.

So long as society is committed to the proposition that differences between nations can be solved by the extermination of populations, any branch of science can be put to use in killing, and will be.

If, therefore, you attack the body of science and attempt to amputate its nuclear extremity, it will respond by growing other types of arms: directed-energy rays, chemical weapons, biological weapons, radiological weapons, and so on.

The criminal is not science but society. The only thing we can do - and in desperation we may come close to it at times, as our young people vote with their feet against science - is to slow down the whole enterprise. And that seems like a very sad re to our predicament. Human dignity is ill by the wearing of a blindfold.

H.G. Wells, the great optimist about science and its civilizing effects, wrote a satirical novel in which he described a society that regarded sight as a dangerous condition best cured at birth by the removal of the eyes.

Halting science is surely not the answer. We should trust ourselves and our fellow beings at least to the extent that we believe knowledge to beneficial and ignorance abhorrent.

I might add something else in the way of mistaken notions regarding the obligations of he scientist. Once again , I am responding to the comments young

The obligation for those who know is to explain the reality of science to society

Scientists are citizens possessed of an important form of literacy. It take the form of numeracy and an acquaintance with what, in more innocent times, was call "the scientific method."

This literacy is a privilege given to us by society. Society lavished wealth upon us in the form of training and then accorded us, to a small degree, a place of honor - patting us on the back for doing the job we most enjoy. All of this imposes an obligation.

Indeed, anybody who can do so much as read has an obligation to those who cannot. For example, they should be obliged, when in the presence of the illiterate, to read out loud warning signs that say "caution."

What I am saying about the responsibility of the scientist, I have tested in an important laboratory: the lecture theatre. I recall that when I talked to students about this subject, they said: "But surely our obligations go beyond those of citizens with special privileges of education? Should we not, as scientists, see to it that science develops in a way that is beneficial, along directions most likely to have humane and advantageous consequences?"

I have to tell them that I do not know of my way of doing that, and I think it is grossly misleading to pretend otherwise.

If, for example, one responds to the fact that nuclear weapons have put the future of mankind in jeopardy by saying that nuclear research should be terminated or slowed down, one damages science. To some this will seem to be a price worth paying. But it will not appear so when they realize that they have bought nothing.

So long as society is committed to the proposition that differences between nations can be solved by the extermination of populations, any branch of science can be put to use in killing, and will be.

If, therefore, you attack the body of science and attempt to amputate its nuclear extremity, it will re by girowing other types of arms: directed-energy rays, chemical weapons, biological weapons, radiological weapons, and so on.

The criminal is not science but society. The only thing we can do - and in desperation we may come close to it at times, as our young people vote with their feet against science - is to slow down the whole enterprise. And that seems like a very sad re to our preqicament. Human dignity is ill by the wearing of a blindfold.

H.G. Wells, the great optimist about science and its civilizing effects, wrote a satirical novel in which he described a society that regarded sight as a dangerous condition best cured at birth by the removal of the eyes.

Halting science is surely not the answer. We should trust ourselves and our fellow beings at least to the extent that we believe knowledge to beneficial and ignorance abhorrent.

I might add something else in the way of mistaken notions regarding the obligations of he scientist. Once again , I am responding to the comments young people make to me. They will perhaps accept what I have just said. But then they protest: "You have another responsibility. You are in a position where you can affect public policy directly by compelling the rest of society to behave responsibly."

It is true. We could exert this kind of influence by organizing ourselves for widespread strikes. Our services are indeed needed.

But if we were to do this, we would be punished by the rest of society. And rightly so. One section of society cannot assume the right to dictate to the rest on the assumption that it has a monopoly on wisdom. There is a corollary to this. Not only do we scientists not have the right to seize the levers of power, we do not have the obligation. We cannot be criticized for failing to subvert the debate by which policy is properly determined.

This answer having been given, an alert student will say: "But what about the roughly 10,000 scientists, in several countries, who stated that they would not accept money for research on the Strategic Defence Initiative? Do you reject them?"

The answer is no. I was one of them. "Is there not a contradiction here?" I am asked. "Were you not involved in an attempt to coerce the rest of society by withholding your services?" No, not in my view.

The objective was to make a gesture designed to draw attention to deeply-held beliefs. It was a gesture equivalent to that made by people who lie down in the path of a tank to draw attention to their views - but without any expectation that armies will thereupon disband.

Having gained the attention of the public, they must then win their case by argument.

It will be compelling argument, and not the withdrawal of services, that ultimately seals the fate of SDI. The political process will not have been subverted.

All this says something about the obligations we scientists do not have. What about the obligations that we do have?

The obligation that we have is to pay the tax of citizenship to the rest of society - a tax on our time, a tax on the wealth of knowledge that is ours. We must be willing, on occasion, to contribute our par type of literacy to the public debate on some of the. issues that have a technological component.

We understand how science advances. We know that there is no moment of scientific discovery but that there is an accumulation of evidence -that eventually, as in a court of law, convinces reasonable people.

Many who lack direct experience of science believe that at the moment of proof a bell rings. Later, they discover that a supposed proof was invalid, and they lose faith in the scientific process. Had they realized that proof represents no more than diminished uncertainty, they would also have understood that risk is inescapable.

It is a damaging thing if society demands that risk be abolished. What we have to do - and it is enornmously important that we do it - is to prioritize risk so that we do not squander our wealth trying to diminish trivial hazards.

Here, at last, I am pointing to our obligations as members of the scientific community.

I do not think we have a shameful record. But, I do think our performance falls short of what is required for survival. And that, is a shattering indictment.

A major landmark in the appreciation of our obligations as citizens came with the nuclear age. Scientists can take pride in those of our colleagues who, before there had been any demonstration of nuclear explosions, were saying that the nature of war, and the nature of relations between nations, would be transformed by the advent of nuclear weapons. They made it clear the future of the world depended as never before upon global co-op

Those were farsighted individuals from within the scientific community, and we salute them. We would wish to emulate them. They were, however, an exceedingly small group. In addition, human imagination being limited, their focus (and mine too) proved to be too narrow.

What we now realize is that the power of modem science has transformed the world in a much more extensive way. There is another highly explosive situation namely the intolerable and increasing inequities deriving from the expanding population of the world, escalating energy consumption and depleted resources. Hidden in that settlement is the fear that we may be doing irreversible damage to our habitat - and the certain knowledge that we must act without delay if we are to avoid irreversible damage in the future.

These profound problems require our active attention as citizens educated in science, even though it will be at the sacrifice of some of our lives in science.

The Renaissance represented a modest transformation compared with that which science and technology have brought about in recent decades. Scientists, being in the centre of the cultural stream that is reshaping the global landscape, have an obligation to offer their services, not as Messiahs but as interpreters between the language of science and that of society.

Ours is a powerful, but narrow, language. We have much to teach and more to learn. Striking the balance between these activities will constitute a creative act of the first order, with fateful consequences for mankind. We can be hopeful of the outcome only so long as we accord human imagination the freedom that it needs in order to flourish.

(John Polanyi is University Professor at the University of Toronto. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1986. This is an edited version of a speech printed in the, spring 1992 edition of the Queen's Quarterly.)

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