Sins of science

Week 10’s readings about the appropriate role of scientists in the public arena brought to mind the story of German chemist Fritz Haber.  Haber was a secular Jewish chemist who won a Nobel Prize for combining nitrogen and hydrogen to make nitrates for fertilizer.  His achievement was hailed as “a triumph in service of all humanity” (from Haber’s obituary in 1934).  On the other hand, he also contributed to the production of synthetic nitrates for explosives, thereby increasing and prolonging the mass slaughter of World War I.  Haber also invented a way to weaponize poison gas for use on the battlefield.  He developed a pesticide called Zyclon A which was later re-formulated by the Nazis as Zyclon B, which was used to murder people, including some of Haber’s own relatives, in the gas chamber.  Was Haber good or evil?  Was he a patriot trying to serve his country or was he a war criminal? Do the ends justify the means?  The point is that scientists often try and position themselves or science in general as being on the side of good or evil, when the fact is there are often elements of both sides present.

3 Responses to Sins of science

  • T. Mark Miller says:

    Good and evil is always an interesting question. What are the scientists responsibilities to society for their discoveries? We started down this path when we talked about what accountability does an engineer have for their products. This was something that Einstein also struggled with. According to Clark, Einstein refused to do any work associated with the war when he first came to the US., But by 1939, Einstein sent a letter the FDR supporting the research on the atomic bomb. Does the blood of thousands of Japanese stain Einstein’s hands?

    Another fascinating questions has to do with the social network that supports scientists and engineers making weapons of mass destruction. In his book Nuclear Rites, Gusterson looks at the Lawrence Livermore lab in California. The lab is creating H-bombs that could literally destroy the world. But, the people in the lab do not see it that way. They view the creation of their weapons as saving the world. Without their bombs, mutual destruction would not be assured and WW3 might start. And, there is a community network that supports the lab and this unique view of weapons of mass destruction and nature. Gusterson called this social support “regimes of truth.” In this world view, nuclear bombs are good, not bad. If the bombs are good, then the scientists and engineers making the bombs must be good.

    Was Haber good or evil? Was he a patriot trying to serve his country or was he a war criminal? I think we could say good, evil or both. Good and evil seems very fluid. But as history reminds us, it is the victors that ultimately define good and evil after the war. Hence, Haber – loser – evil. Haber’s regime of truth lost. Einstein – winner – good. Lawrence Livermore Lab – winner – good. But as STS reminds us, it did not have to turn out this way. It’s not evolution, it’s the playing out of history. Today’s winners can be tomorrow’s losers.

    Ronald Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times
    Gusterson, H. (1996). Nuclear rites: A weapons laboratory at the end of the Cold War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Yanna Lambrinidou says:

    Really interesting. I wonder what you think about questions like: “Why is this complexity important? Why should we care about it?” It strikes me that “good” and “evil” are often negotiable and negotiated, often defined differently by different groups and, as Mark said, often assessed differently at different times in history. What I am especially curious about is how (and by whom) master narratives are written about science’s virtues (or lack thereof). Surely individual scientists may judge different scientific developments as “good” or “evil,” but how frequent or widespread are master narratives that portray science in general as being on the side of “good” or being on the side of “evil”? In other words, how are we all — scientists and non-scientists alike — conditioned to view the scientific enterprise or renowned scientists within it? How complex are the narratives we hear about this enterprise or its renowned scientists? What purposes might such narratives ultimately serve? – PS. Curious to know more about which (or what parts) of Week 10’s readings inspired your post!

  • Any innovation of science or engineering potentially has a sinister side, which is usually not contemplated, or is beyond reach, when the innovation is ongoing. An engineer will be tempted to try to fix this problem, perhaps by promoting ethics awareness and practice in engineering education. This approach is bound to fail. What if a project is abandoned because it is deemed to have potential for “evil?” Someone else will take it up, and drawing attention to the “evil” will reveal an avenue toward an outcome that some will seek. I cannot think of a way to prevent “evil” in science; the interaction of time and technology has too many degrees of freedom to model outcomes very far ahead. The work of science can only be judged in a context, and that context changes over time and space, thus rendering virtues fluid and retrospective, as Mark pointed out. One society’s Genesis terraforming machine is another society’s Genesis torpedo.

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