Monday, March 2, 2020

Objective science and its human consequences - VI

The targeting of individuals if their views are not to the liking of the state is common even in democracies. Robert Oppenheimer followed the American military line on every issue during the making of the atom bomb but raised objections later to making the hydrogen bomb.He soon fell from the status of an American hero to a  hesitant egghead who was a security risk. The militarist pressure groups maneuvered an investigation into Oppenheimer's activities, and he was deprived of his security clearance and stripped of his honors.

The persecution of Oppenheimer illustrates a key objection to modernity and modernization that Gandhi had: it renders individuals impotent by making them subservient to institutions and unable to act according to the dictates of their conscience. He emphasizes that things are not always what they seem and continually draws attention to what is ignored. He does not deny the benefits that modernity brings but draws attention to the costs that individuals will have to bear in order to get those benefits. For eg., take the case of freedom: you may be free to pursue pleasures and comforts but  you may not be free to make moral choices as you see fit. You will always be captive to fear and live at the mercy of the powerful. Ronald Terchek writes in Gandhi: Strugling for Autonomy:
. . .Gandhi recognizes that the costs involved in pursuing a person's moral principles are often high and that many refuse to pay the price; and he is not ready to to condemn ordinary men and women who fail to rise to the highest sacrifice. He continually seeks to design institutional arrangements that lessen the costs to ordinary people of meeting their moral responsibilities. In his ideal society, men and women are not constantly placed in morally tragic situations in which the the only way to follow the good is at continued high personal sacrifice. 
Scientists and Gandhi focused on different issues. Scientist focused on their research and said the technologies that resulted from their discoveries were not their responsibility. Gandhi maintained that theories were irrelevant and the only issue of consequence was how scientific research was used. Nowadays, only a small percentage of scientists are engaged in pure science and the vast majority are involved in technology with the majority of them in defense technology. As Sir Solly Zuckerman says, 'The needs of defense, or the presumed needs of defense ... condition the kind of technology, and ... the kind of science, that is encouraged in countries which by political circumstances have been forced into the arms race.'  Ashis Nandy writes in Science, Hegemony and Violence:
Yet, at the same time, we can be reasonably sure that the concept of pure science and the conceptual difference between science and technology will be carefully retained. It will be retained not because of the demands of the philosophers of science but because it is only by distinguishing between science and technology that all social criticism of science can continue to be deflected away from science towards technology. A shadowy, ethereal concept of science that has little to do with the real-life endeavors of practicing scientists can then be politically defended as the pursuit of truth uncontaminated by human greed, violence and search for power. 
One key principle that Gandhi espoused was that the end rarely justifies the means. For him, means were invariably more important than ends. In the goal-driven and competitive environment of many academic settings, it is easy to forego moral principles. I heard of an interesting way in which scientists avoid taking responsibility for the products of their research. Who discovered penicillin? Vaccination? Every school-child will know the name and they will be mentioned in school textbooks. Scientists are eager to showcase them because they are seen as examples of benefits of science for mankind.

Now comes the other side of the ledger. Who invented Agent Orange? Nerve Gas? Napalm? Nobody will know the answer. This is because the scientists concerned and the enterprise of science as a collectivity want to avoid taking responsibility for them. They will pass on the responsibility for the nefarious uses of the products of their research on to the state. They will say that they only provide the means and whether they are used for good or bad purposes depends on who is using them. This brings us to the question of the value neutrality of science and technology.

Value-neutrality is a principle that directs us to keep our emotions and biases in check when dealing with certain products. Scientific research requires an investment of money and time and it is often chosen keeping in mind the possible use of their outcomes and results. Therefore, receiving funds and practicing scientific research are not value-neutral activities because by approving and accepting researches and projects scientists tacitly do agree with the goals by providing means to them.

Scientists require to adhere to moral norms and values and to be responsible for conducting scientific researches. It is the responsibility of scientists to consider the implications and usage of their findings since they know much more about them than the general public. They cannot ignore the consequences of their scientific conducts for society.  This is more so because of the strong presence of science in moral, social, and political decision-making processes; not just as an impersonal set of formulae.

Scientists can no longer hope naively that people will only use science for the public good and will not be hijacked by the greed for dominance and power. An assessment of the desirability of the pursuit of a particular project has to be part of the mental make-up of scientists. Jungk cites von Laue's statement that 'no one ever invents anything that he does not really want to invent'. Like all other people, scientists are responsible for both what they intend to achieve and for the application of their work that are readily foreseeable. There is nothing sacrosanct about being a scientist that removes this burden of responsibility. 

The gap between power and responsibility has widened more than ever before. According to Hanna Arendt's diagnosis of the contemporary predicament, processes with unfathomable consequences are being released in a society of beings too absorbed in consumption to take any responsibility for the human world or to understand their political capacities. She observes in her prologue to The Human Condition, that "thoughtlessness" (itself related to the loss of the common human world) is "among the outstanding characteristics of our time'.

She says, 'If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.' But she points out that in human affairs it is actually quite reasonable to expect the unexpected, and that new beginnings cannot be ruled out even when society seems locked in stagnation or set on an inexorable course.

PS: In Tomorrow is Already Here  (the book was published first in 1954 so it is about the present), Robert Jungk gives a glimpse of the world that a deterministic science is attempting to build. The major assumption of such a science when shorn of all flowery language is that the world is like a machine whose uncertainties can be eliminated by planning using more data. For them, nature's shortcomings are, as Donald Worster puts it, "but an invitation to man to become nature's engineer and create a paradise on Earth of his own design, whose functioning he can plan and direct in all its detail."

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