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THE RESPONSIBILITY OF SCIENCE TO MAN BARRY COMMONER* Science is, ofcourse, a human activity. Yet science generates a striking independence ofman, for a basic precept ofscience is its objectivity. A scientific experiment is conducted by the fallible hands ofa human being and is guided by a mind which may, in its humanity, ardently desire a particular outcome. Nevertheless, science has developed strong methods which can derive from a series ofseparate, partly faulty experiments, conducted by persons with conflicting interests and aims, a common body ofinformation which achieves an independence of human inadequacies and desires. One ofthe great strengths ofscience is its power to travel a course that transcends the human vehicles which carry it. It is only natural, then, that science should achieve a kind ofsacrosanct immunity from human complaint. If science—knowledge ofthe laws of nature—reveals facts which are unpleasant to some ofus, no protest will, after all, change them. Ifthe surging course ofresearch reveals new questions which some ofus would rather see unexplored, we are reluctant to pit our own petty desires against the transcendent demand that we must learn ever more. Man is the inventor of science and the designer of its cold detachment and heedless objectivity. And for this very reason, some men will at some time find their own desires thwarted by the onward movement of science. This conflict, which is as old as science itself, has in recent times become a source ofacute, ifnot openly expressed, anxiety. In the last generation, the power ofscience has grown enormously, and the intensity ofits threat to some human desires is, by that much, greater. Because ofthe progress of modern science, we must live with certain new and unpleasant facts: that a synthetic drug can dictate the behavior of a human being; or that * Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. This paper was presented as an address at the n6th Commencement ofthe Hahnemann Medical College, Philadelphia,June 6, 1963. 85 nuclear debris can alter the genetic fate of our progeny. And the very power ofscience which these facts symbolize—a deeper understanding of the sources of human behavior and a vastly increased control of natural energy sources—stifles any complaint. We must suffer in silence because to grumble is an affront to knowledge, a useless insult to the ineluctable progress of science. And so it appears to be a special mark of our time that, with the growing power of science, we experience mounting anxieties over its result—but a deepening reluctance to express them. Perhaps the most illuminating example of this situation is the present conflict over the exploration of space. A group of social scientists which met in the summer of 1962 to consider the social implications ofour vast space program asked themselves this question [1]: "Why the relative absence ofa national debate on the worth ofthe space effort? Ifthere are skeptics about the worth, why aren't they more vocal—in scientific, journalistic , public and Congressional forums?" And they noted that ". . . for some people the major thrust ofthe space effort is a subject ofindifference, anxiety, or dissatisfaction. Their worries have not yet coalesced into a major, effective vocal opposition, but there are scattered signs ofa latent uneasiness, ifnot direct hostility." Because I believe that this same problem is at the root ofcurrent issues in all the sciences, I should like on this occasion to explore the basis ofthe now-emerging conflict about the nation's scientific program in space. Being a biologist, I shall largely restrict my remarks to the biological aspects ofthe space program. What is thejustification ofbiological research in space, viewed as a step in the objective development ofscience, wholly detached from our desires for any particular result? The chiefreason, according to the biologists who reviewed the problem last summer under the sponsorship of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences (at the request of, andwith the financialsupport of, NASA), is the search for life outside the earth. There are good reasons for choosing this goal. We now have considerable evidence that life first arose on the earth as a result ofnatural, gradual changes in the chemical composition ofthe planet's outer skin. The earth apparently began its existence surrounded...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 85-92
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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