Science, Knowledge and Conscience

(Article pour Italcementi ArcVision 2000)

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André-Yves Portnoff

The anti-globalization protests in Seattle and Prague, along with the fears raised by genetic manipulation and development in general, recall reactions to new events that have marked the history of mankind. The end of the XIX century has been characterized by waves of protest against the suffering caused by the industrial revolution; many countries consider this as something imposed on them from the outside. This feeling contributed to the transformation of patriotic, democratic, and universalist movements in 1830 and 1848 into xenophobic and often racist nationalism—ever a primary source of conflict—the wounds of which have not yet healed.

A large segment of our fellow citizens still live with the conviction that things are decided for them and that their future is held hostage in the hands of other people. Furthermore they feel that all essential decisions are made in Brussels, on Wall Street, in the secret Board meetings of multinational corporations or in the twisted minds of mad scientists.

There are two concrete reasons why these reactions can be treated with neither contempt nor irony.

On the one hand history has taught us that these reactions have the potential to lead to catastrophe such as the anti-global fears of the 19th century which paved the way for the massacres of the 20th century.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that these protesters, despite the fact that they often propose unacceptable solutions, usually highlight very real problems that we could avoid only by risking much greater danger.

Fear of change and the need for progress

It is difficult to pose these problems correctly due to two myths which have always occupied center stage in humanity's collective imagination. First, the myth of the Golden Age, of our lost paradise; and second, the myth of a promised paradise guaranteed by progress and constant development.

The first myth, which dates back to the dawn of our civilization, keeps the regret and sadness for a lost past alive in our hearts, as well as a fear of change which forbids us from objectively evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of the present. Yesterday everything was much better: food was healthier because it was more natural, the environment was less polluted, and people were more honest. Obviously this brand of nostalgia is wrong. When was the wonderful past and the good old times? Certainly not a half a century ago when millions of people were dying. Nor a century prior to that, when children slaved away in mines while adults were dying of old age before they had had enough time to grow old.

And while we weep for this perfect past of ours that never existed, we strengthen our conviction concerning the right to progress. We have needs which are increasingly more exacting in terms of convenience and security. The progress brought about by medicine, technology and education are considered to be a kind of acquired right that cannot be questioned and for which we do not need to feel grateful to researchers, companies, or to public powers. The legislator transforms this evolution into the so-called precautionary principle whereby if innocent aspirin had been discovered today, it would probably not be sanctioned by health authorities due to its negative side effects.

These precautions have an undeniably positive side effect insofar as they represent a sign of progress in the collective conscience. We have become much more demanding when it comes to the quality of our medicines, foods, security and the search for a healthy workplace because we are increasingly aware of the value of a single human person, of his individual life and well-being. Can anyone blame the democratic countries for no longer accepting the death of thousands of people as the price to be paid for great works, such as what happened with the excavations of the Panama or Suez canals or the construction of the American transcontinental railroads?

We must continue to follow this path. We are still far from having reached what can be considered an optimum situation. And those who think this is an exaggeration would do well to remember that the vast majority of humanity still lives in deplorable conditions. Even in our most privileged countries there remains a great deal of work to be done. The health world, which has just recently discovered that even newborns suffer and that men and women are not always treated with the same consideration, still has not fulfilled its essential revolution, that which will allow it to humanize itself. Almost everywhere, the moment a citizen crosses the threshold of a hospital, he ceases to be considered an adult in full possession of his arbitrary freedom. He loses the right to choose that which he believes is best for himself.

The difficulty a “client” faces in exercising critical control in the health world can be evidenced by the cases denounced last year by the American Institute of Medicine which said that “medical errors kill nearly 100,000 people a year in American hospitals, accounting for the fifth highest cause of death in that country.” Now, without a shameful law of silence which hides these accidents, it would be possible to halve the mortality rate in five years thanks to formative and organizational measures.

This type of criticism should be applied to a large number of the world’s organizations, both public and private. All too often our society continues to accept that the very mechanics which drive it are what brings suffering and even death to innocent people. Just consider the time it took before we finally took the risks and dangers presented by asbestos and tobacco seriously.

The Damocles’ Era

We have yet to construct a human enough world, and the stakes at play have never been as high as they are today. We have become infinitely more powerful than our ancestors, both thanks to and because of technological progress; for the first time in the history of mankind we have enough power to destroy all forms of life on earth in the space of just a few short hours. As the philosopher Edgar Morin has stated, we have entered a Damocles era.

Therefore, we must be careful and not let this awareness lead us astray, i.e. into avoiding progress simply for fear of creating new dangers. One possible deviation, particularly obvious in the United States, is legal. Every doubt becomes an opportunity for profit. This has particularly serious consequences as it leads, among other things, to some chemical industries ceasing production of certain plastic resins (which are useful in creating prostheses), for fear that one day they will have to face cases brought against them in the event of post-operational complications. It recalls the legal troubles connected to breast implants that came close to destroying Dow Chemical and continue to terrorize many large industrial companies. In many fields research may be heavily curbed or even brought to a halt because of legal risks. From Spongiform Encephalitis, which may prove to be a worldwide catastrophe, to genetic manipulation, which has yet to kill a single person, the multiplication of these affairs may potentially create panic in the public opinion forcing public powers to adopt interventionary measures.

We are entering into a society of suspicion, fueled essentially by the information networks which enable us to spread rumors and collective fears as quickly as useful and positive information. Genetic manipulation stirs up fears which are entirely legitimate; like all powerful technologies which can be used both for good and evil. Nevertheless, this aspect of human progress remains indispensable in the search for cures for currently incurable diseases as well as to reinforce the availability of our nutritional resources. Who would have the courage, while standing face-to-face with the unfortunate victim of some terrible genetic disease to maintain that for mere prudence, or for ethical or religious motivations, geneticists should be prevented from searching for a cure for his affliction? Humanity needs this research to be in continuous progression—never at a standstill.

Five obstacles in the democratic debate

The entire problem lies in correctly evaluating the risks involved and the nature of what is at stake. In a democracy, responsibility lies with the citizens as a whole, and not with the experts, to make binding decisions on the most serious problems. This is the only way to create a climate of trust which will allow people to reconcile research for progress in an atmosphere of reasonable security. But first we must create the premises for a democratic debate.

Five obstacles must be overcome.

The first is that those responsible are scared of worrying people. The authorities' constant reaction when faced with a risk is not to intervene when the facts call for it and reduce the risks of potential danger, but to respond to public opinion, calming the common man’s fears and demonstrating that politicians have the situation fully under control.

The second obstacle is created by specialists who despise any and all novices in their field, convinced that it would be useless to attempt to explain problems to them that they would in any case be incapable of comprehending. This policy of non-communication justifiably feeds suspicion, legitimates it, and has contributed to, among other things, a general rejection of nuclear power for civil needs.

The third problem reinforces the preceding two. In many cases, the experts are both judges and plaintiffs, and they are not impartial to the interests at stake which are often financial and sometimes even highly personal.

This proves the importance of strong public research and the necessity for a rule of law capable of preventing personal interests from hiding information, buying off experts, and hindering the application of the rules or their necessary evolution. This weakness of the state, which should function as protector of general interests in both the short and the long terms, constitutes the fourth obstacle to be overcome. In a society dependent on nuclear energy, corruption carries with it mortal dangers!

The fifth obstacle is the lack of a scientific culture in our society. Neither our leaders nor our fellow citizens are fully able to understand science and technology and to appreciate the powers and limits of a way of searching for knowledge which is never over, and which has neither the means nor the claim of being absolute certainties.

We are not prepared to understand these complex problems because we think in a linear, singular manner. Again, everything must be either black or white, true or false, secure or dangerous. The idea of risk is not part of this kind of thinking process. On this point, our education is far too influenced by Descartes, and not enough by Pascal or Giambattista Vico… Our educational system divides, and thus separates, science and technology from general culture. Even our future engineers do not receive a proper scientific and technical cultural background. There is no adequate concentration on historical perspective, reflection on the nature of science and technology—on their limits and ethical criteria. Now more than ever, Francois Rabelais’s words from five centuries ago are appropriate: “Science without conscience is nothing more than the ruin of the soul.”

This reflection is possible despite the complexity of modern problems. This complexity is such that no single specialist can possibly hope to understand it in its entirety all by himself. It is necessary to unite the experiences of numerous disciplines, which implies the adoption of a common language. The only common factor in the education and training of a doctor, a physicist, a sociologist, and an economist is a diploma, that is to say the level of education of the majority of our fellow citizens. Most citizens are therefore fully capable of understanding the essentials of our great problems. All we need to do is present these problems as clearly as possible with honesty and courage. This is what is at stake for a democratic society which is by definition respectful of the citizens which compose it.