Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Science and Censorship

Dark materials. Nuclear scientist Joseph Rotblat campaigned against the atom bomb he had helped unleash. Is it time for today's cyber scientists to heed his legacy?
"There is an ever-widening gap between what science allows, and what we should actually do. There are many doors science can open that should be kept closed, on prudential or ethical grounds. Choices on how science is applied should not be made just by scientists."
Essay by Martin Rees
President of the Royal Society
[Guardian, Saturday June 10, 2006]

We cannot allow the terrorists to terrorise us. Scientific research shouldn't be halted simply because it might fall into the wrong hands.
"The scientist's job is to shine light in the darkness, and if we occasionally burn our fingers on the candle, so be it. Lord Rees can choose the darkness if he wants. I'm not going to."

I am uneasy about both sides of this debate. Should science be restrained - either by scientists or by society. Do politicians represent the interests of society, or is there a better and more democratic way for society's interests to be represented?

The fact is that science is already restrained by all sorts of social and commercial forces - above all the willingness to fund particular kinds of research and not others. The choice is not simply between a risk-averse establishment (represented by the Royal Society) and a risk-seeking free-thinking radical alternative (represented by the Foundation).

Of course Anderson is right to be wary of the distorted perceptions of risk by politicians and the non-scientific public. But the proper response to this is a properly constituted debate. Meanwhile, politicians will often seek stupid measures to use and abuse scientists.

As I reported last year (Research Under Fire), scientists and engineers at the University of Berkeley are wary of academic restrictions imposed by the US Federal Government in the name of national security. Thankfully this isn't the kind of restraint Rees is advocating.

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