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Author Topic: Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?  (Read 8307 times)

Offline Karsten

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You look at the can. You are curious what is in it. You fear that it might be full of worms. Should you open it anyways?

Should everything that can be investigated be investigated? If engineers are responsible for the uses and abuses of their creations, should scientists be responsible for what they do (=discover) as well? Should some things remain buried when it is clear that unearthing it will cause more trouble than leaving it in the unknown?


 

Offline DrN

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #1 on: 25/02/2009 21:30:40 »
I think those decisions should (and I think do) lie with the people who fund the research, not the individual scientist. The potential consequences of that research should be considered when scrutinising the grant application.

If our Government sudddenly started funding research into bio-weapons (maybe they already do?!) then they would be responsible for whatever came out of it.

The second part of that question is far more complicated!
 

lyner

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #2 on: 25/02/2009 21:54:25 »
Does that really deal with the problem? I think you are confusing 'responsibility' with 'ability to influence'.
We are all responsible for what we know and do and we have, at least some, influence. It is nearly always possible for a Science worker to withhold from his bosses / funders anything  he (or she, of course) may think is not morally right. I believe that a number of Scientists in Nazi Germany did just that in order to delay the German progress with the A bomb.

 

Offline Don_1

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #3 on: 26/02/2009 08:08:25 »
It is not always the invention or discovery which can be the cause of problems, but the way in which it is applied.

Who can we blame for nuclear weapons? Oppenheimer? Rutherford? Thompson? Dalton? Could we even blame Democritus?

Could we even blame biological weapons on Pasteur or Fleming?

Unless it is patently obvious that an invention or discovery can only be applied to evil purpose, it is the responsibility of the scientist/inventor to research, find answers, discover & invent. Where such is applied in a perverted manner, it is the applier who must be held responsible.
 

Offline Karsten

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #4 on: 26/02/2009 13:28:57 »
I think those decisions should (and I think do) lie with the people who fund the research, not the individual scientist.

So, "Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing?" Meaning (roughly translated from German), I will sing the song of the person who gives me bread? Would that not excuse any employee from any action that occurs just because it was requested by the entity paying them or financing their work? If our government sponsored research into bio-weapons, the scientists participating would not have responsibility?

It is nearly always possible for a Science worker to withhold from his bosses / funders anything  he (or she, of course) may think is not morally right. I believe that a number of Scientists in Nazi Germany did just that in order to delay the German progress with the A bomb.

Very good point. Is that what scientists should do? Decide what knowledge is appropriate to convey? Decide based on personal values who will get the knowledge and who will not? I think so, but how about others here?

It is not always the invention or discovery which can be the cause of problems, but the way in which it is applied.
(...)
Unless it is patently obvious that an invention or discovery can only be applied to evil purpose, it is the responsibility of the scientist/inventor to research, find answers, discover & invent. Where such is applied in a perverted manner, it is the applier who must be held responsible.

Does "patently obvious" depend on how wide open the eyes of the scientist are? Is it the responsibility of a scientist to be informed what is going on in the world and make decisions based on this? I imagine a work-focused, sheltered person would be less able to see the potential uses for his/her work. Are they not to be held responsible if their discovery is used for purposes that is surprising only to them?

What is "evil" exactly? I would say it changes with your environment, upbringing, and moment in history. Should each individual scientist decide what is evil?

Who can we blame for nuclear weapons? Oppenheimer? Rutherford? Thompson? Dalton? Could we even blame Democritus?
Could we even blame biological weapons on Pasteur or Fleming?

Good point. How far do we go back? Did Pasteur or Fleming think about intentionally infecting people for warfare or research? Did they do the right thing if they withheld those ideas?

Are there any other professionals on this planet who are not responsible for the results of their potentially world-moving work? Does your talent and skill excuse you from thinking and worrying about what could be done with what you discover? Is it acceptable (or even advantageous) to slow down the accumulation of scientific knowledge by thoroughly pondering the value and potential effect of this knowledge first?

So many questions. Can't wait for the thought-provoking (or merely provocative) answers.  ;)

 

Offline Don_1

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #5 on: 26/02/2009 14:46:50 »
What is "evil" exactly? I would say it changes with your environment, upbringing, and moment in history. Should each individual scientist decide what is evil?


Quite so; to carry further from my post, could you blame air pollution on Franklin, Faraday or Volta, or perhaps you should blame Benz, Daimler or Henry Ford? Or perhaps the Wright brothers or Whittle?

Then again,
I believe that a number of Scientists in Nazi Germany did just that in order to delay the German progress with the A bomb.


and some research by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates has been used to further medical science. This was seen as good research by those doctors, but by others, and by all today the very idea of such practice is abhorrent, yet we still utilised their findings.

So here we have two examples where the good has turned into the pariah and the evil has turned into the saviour.
« Last Edit: 26/02/2009 14:48:44 by Don_1 »
 

lyner

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #6 on: 26/02/2009 18:24:51 »
"For evil to succeed, it is only necessary that good men do nothing"
Someone famous said that but I can't remember who it was.
 

Offline Karsten

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #7 on: 26/02/2009 23:39:40 »
"For evil to succeed, it is only necessary that good men do nothing"
Someone famous said that but I can't remember who it was.

"Evil prevails when good men do nothing", Edmund Burke
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke

(As it happens, I saw a movie two days ago where that quote was used. Lord of War with Nicholas Cage. The main character thought it should be shortened to "Evil prevails".)
 

Offline Karsten

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Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #8 on: 27/02/2009 00:00:32 »
Quite so; to carry further from my post, could you blame air pollution on Franklin, Faraday or Volta, or perhaps you should blame Benz, Daimler or Henry Ford? Or perhaps the Wright brothers or Whittle?

While it is an interesting discussion to think about how our technological world happened to develop, I am not looking for any reason to blame anyone. Hindsight is always superior.

I wonder how a scientist should act in a complicated world and before hindsight becomes an option. What are the restraints a scientist should apply, if any? If there aren't any, why not? Do scientists act neglectful if they do not inform themselves about what could be done with the results of their work?
 

The Naked Scientists Forum

Do scientists have responsibility for their discoveries?
« Reply #8 on: 27/02/2009 00:00:32 »

 

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