If the Truth Be Told

My apologies to all for not getting the job done in yesterday’s post. Our friend Peter had asked this question, which last night’s item stopped short of answering:

Are there some scientific truths which ought not to be revealed?

Reader Kevin Kim, as well as Peter himself, have quite rightly held my feet to the fire, and so I’ll have a go at it here.

It is important to note that the question, as asked, concerns scientific truths. But science as practiced is never a direct approach to truth. The real course of science is a zigzagging path, with frequent course corrections. In the long run, thanks to the robustness of the basic algorithm of science, it can be relied upon to move in the right direction, but in the short run there can be many false starts and wrong turns. Good examples of this sort of thing are the ever-changing advice we hear about health and nutrition, and the drugs that appear on the market only to be discovered later to be ineffective, or even tragically harmful. There is a difficult tension to be resolved here: obviously it is in society’s interest to have beneficial knowledge or drugs sooner, rather than later, but because scientific results, especially when new, are not perfectly reliable, there are risks. We try, through clinical trials, to be as certain as we can, but to withhold a promising drug for years of testing can seem awfully cruel to those who may die in the meanwhile, while on the other hand to release a drug for public consumption that may turn out to have ghastly effects — fen-phen and thalidomide come to mind — seems just as cruelly irresponsible. So a balance must be found; it will necessarily be imperfect. Where the risks caused by the possibility of error are high, and the suffering caused by delay is slight, scientists ought to take as long as they need to be as sure of their results as they can; but where the need is urgent the risk becomes more acceptable.

But what about genuine truths? Are there circumstances in which we might know with certainty some truth that, if revealed, might cause harm? Indeed there are. The best example, perhaps — and, I think, an illuminating one — is the research into basic physics that led to the atomic bomb. Might we all have been better off had the physicists kept their secret? There are many questions here, both philosophical and practical. In the story of the atom bomb, the practical considerations, unsurprisingly, came to the fore.

The work that led to the idea of the bomb had nothing to do with military research. It was simply part of the centuries-old exploration into the constituents of matter, and the laws that they obey — research that was ongoing both here and in Europe. But once researchers became aware of the immense power locked inside the atom, it quickly became apparent that others, too, would make the same realization — and given that those “others” were working for Nazi Germany, the need for the Allies to get there first was obvious to all.

The point is that the truth is simply “out there”, and will be found. We have always been a curious species, and that isn’t going to change. Nor should it! Even if we were, through some ghastly global crackdown, able to suppress scientific research the world over, it would certainly not be in our interest: we have peopled the world to its uttermost corners, are straining the earth’s resources to their limits, and the way forward is going to depend on more, and better, science, not a reactionary and totalitarian effort to press the genie back into the bottle. So the program of discovery will continue — and the unsought-for facts, as so often happens, will continue to pop up from unexpected places.

So if we are not going to stifle the work that turns up these awkward truths, what then? Do scientists have a responsibility to keep them to themselves? It may seem that they do. But is it realistic to think that they can? I doubt it. Were I tomorrow to invent a device the size of a beercan, easily constructed, that could destroy a city, I would be very strongly inclined to keep it to myself. But discoveries have a way of being “in the air” — of finding their own time. Whatever principle, whatever insight I had uncovered in order to achieve this result would probably be taking shape somewhere in another mind, and soon in others as well. The truth will out, and no piece of scientific understanding exists in isolation. As for Peter’s hypothetical population of subnormal intelligence, to suppress the knowledge of their situation would probably be impossible without disabling the entire apparatus of science.

What, then, shall we do? The answer, it seems to me, is clear enough, though perhaps beyond our reach. Our way forward lies in seeking truth, not hiding from it. But we must find a way for the moral and ethical growth of our species to keep pace with the terrifying responsibility that the accelerating pace of discovery forces upon us. This is our test; this is the narrow gate through which we must pass, and the crisis is upon us. Our future is balanced upon a razor’s edge.

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  1. Addofio says

    Since the point of a hypothetical is to sharpen a question to highlight the particular issue we want to address, let’s sharpen your hypothetical a bit: Suppose you are a scientist in Nazi Germany (not the United States) circa 1936, you have figured out the potential for an atomic bomb, and suppose further that you know that your colleagues in Germany are not on the same track. You’re headed to a conference in Berlin. Do you report your results?

    In general, I agree that we not only should not suppress whatever truths we may discover, but should actively seek to get truth “out there” as best we can. I’m just wondering if that’s a principle that would or should trump all other values we might hold, or if there might be occasions when other values we hold dear might not be more important.

    Posted January 25, 2007 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Well, there might be various “oughts” here, depending on whose viewpoint we adopt. If the scientist is a loyal Nazi, obviously he will consider it his duty to reveal his discovery. If he is not, then although he will likely realize that the Allies might be working on the same ideas, he may prefer to see the Nazis (and himself) destroyed by nuclear weapons than wielding them.

    While I argue that mankind must strive for its moral development to keep pace with its scientific advances, we will no doubt lag behind, and there may indeed be cases, like this, in which it is justifiably preferable to delay the dissemination of results in order to keep hideous weapons out of the hands of lunatics. But make no mistake: the knowledge will surface sooner or later, and it is up to us to create a world in which such fiends cannot come to power in the first place. To paraphrase Churchill, science is an obedient servant, and stands willing to do our bidding, for good or ill — to benefit the lives of billions, or shear them away en masse — and the onus is upon us to command it wisely.

    Posted January 25, 2007 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  3. Bill says

    I think your answer to Addofio as well as earlier answers are on the right track. As a former practicing scientist, and wannabe philosopher, it is important to realize that science NEVER is in a position to form moral judgments. It is a highly accurate fact finder and integrator. The problem is in ourselves and not our information to paraphrase the Bard. We are no longer taught even the rudiments of ethics in school, and we have abandoned church-going to such an extent that little of our population is strongly influenced by it, despite fears from the liberal/left.

    On a personal level we generally have learned to make the easier of moral judgments–do I compliment falsely, do I tell a white lie, etc.? We learn when the truth is useful and when destructive, and if we are really subtle we learn that the truth can be either useful or destructive depending on how it is delivered.

    The problem is that we never are taught how to create and use principles. We rely more on the summation of our experiences rather than the idea of right and wrong. A couple of generations makes a huge difference. Harry Truman had principles. He made the hardest decision I can think of in history–to drop the A-bomb–and lived with it. Ronald Reagan had principles even though he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get involved in policy detail. Now we have the politicians to whom winning by any means is all that counts.

    Without principles by which we can judge things new to us, we are doomed. The evil of expediency will overcome the desire to do the right thing every time. Ideally the first level of decision is the scientist himself/herself. If their answer would create a result counter to their principles they would suppress it. Then there is the scientific establishment in various forms. With its current politicization, it would selectively release results based on its benefits to it, e.g., global warming, and bio-technology. Finally there is the body politic, and we have seen the results of that.

    Actually I have said as much as Churchill in many times his number of words. Only a principled person will be able to survive for long in our world of technology.

    Posted January 25, 2007 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well said, Bill.

    Amen, and thanks as always for commenting.

    Posted January 26, 2007 at 12:47 am | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    The old enlightenment slogan seems apt: Dare to know.

    To be daring one must be willing to assume risks. But it’s not a good idea to assume that others want to assume the same risks.

    Posted January 26, 2007 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  6. Addofio says

    Perhaps becasue I teach prospective teachers for a living, and teachers do, every day, grapple with right-and-wrong , at the most practical of levels, I do not think that the picture Bill paints of the general moral state of the population is quite as bleak as Bill would have it.

    I also query the assertion that science is “NEVER in a position to form moral judgments”. For example–THE primary sin within science is to fake one’s data, and “science” does not hesitate to roundly condemn such episodes when they become known. Science is a practice of human beings, all of whom must and do make moral judgments every day, and the activiites of scientists, just as the activities of the rest of us, have ethical and moral consequences. Indeed, the question at hand (to publish or not publish), it seems to me, is presicely one which requires an ethical/moral judgement to be made–to make it on the basis that science somehow lies outside the realm of ethics, is exempt from moral examination, strikes me as a form of begging the question.

    But perhaps you simply meant that one arrives at moral and ethical judgments through processes other than the scientific method–with which I would of course agree.

    Posted January 26, 2007 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Right, I think your second formulation is the correct one. Nobody is arguing that the practice of science is somehow, uniquely among human activities, exempt from moral strictures. The point is that we should not expect those moral guidelines to themselves be the product of science — in other words, science can only tell us what is, not what ought to be.

    Posted January 27, 2007 at 3:06 am | Permalink