14 January 2005

Should there be limits to science?

Should there be limits to science?

Jan 14, 2005

Dear Friends,

Next Sunday's meeting is about the limitations on science. I'm sure this will

prove to be an interesting meeting now that the Christmas hangover is over.

In the meantime during last Saturday's hike to the mountains, i.e. Cercedilla, a

number of possible activities were suggested, including a visit to the source of

the aqueduct in Segovia. Anyone knows a way to the beginning of the aqueduct?

Any suggestions for other activities?

See you Sunday

Take care


SUNDAY 6.30pm START at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs, but just in case

there is no football on go to the very back of the pub, then turn left and left



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Should there be limits to science?

This is a wide ranging question which can take us into the realms of

methodology, human endeavour, ethics, political philosophy, economics,

philosophy of business and of nature itself. Furthermore, today we use the word

science to cover a multitude of sins!

In effect we really must take a look at the question: what is science? But since

this question might take us longer than what we would like let's look at another

question: What is the difference between science and technology?

Technology is much easier to identify: it's the stuff we employ and use to get

things done for us. The computer I'm using is technology, understanding how

electrons behave is science. This, at least, ought to get rid of questions like:

should science be used to build nuclear bombs?

A legitimate question we should ask is: should science always lead to better

technology? For example, whenever we read an account on astronomy we are always

assured that this is important to help us understand the universe and our

creation. I mean, does it matter; isn't it enough that astronomers do what

astronomers have to do, and discover things that they have to discover? Why

should astronomers justify their existence, so to speak? And as for medicine.

The feeling one gets with medicine is that any science done in medicine must

lead to some cure or treatment. Then there is the matter of profit and

commercial exploitation, but I don't want to complicate matters at this point.

It has been a long time since science was done by amateur gentlemen (at the time

things were like that) for the sake of knowledge and curiosity. There was a time

when the order of the day was 'science for science's sake.'

There are at least two arguments to link science with technology; understanding

technology to mean machines with functionality. The first is that today's

science is complex and involves people with different intellectual backgrounds

to get anywhere. This means that if the best brains are to be used for the

benefit of science then there ought to be some sort of social payback. There is

also the little matter that even scientists wish to maximise their income.

Secondly, given the competing interests for public and private money any

scientific activity must be accounted for. And in our society, utilitarianism is

a good indicator.

But should accountability tell us what kind of science we do? Take the following

two cases. While a lot of time and money is used to research anti-matter should

scientists research where human beings have souls? There is also another type of

accountability: moral accountability. Let's take DNA research for example. While

no one will object to research done on the connection between DNA and diseases,

should science be concerned with artificially creating lethal micro organisms?

The issue here is who decides what the economic and moral limits ought to be.

Taking moral issues first, should different interests groups, such as religions

or for that matter, football clubs, influence what science should and/or ought

to do? Maybe economic limits are less controversial; much as we don't like it,

money does limit what we can and cannot do. We can all understand this

limitation, but should the profit motive be the main or only criteria when doing


Limiting science for moral or economic reasons it not such a difficult task. And

the issue whether to link science to a technological pay back could well be an

academic question. There is, however an other source that can limit science and

this is science itself.

Surely, the science that is done today will limit or develop the science that is

done tomorrow. If we don't understand how the Earth's environment functions

today, how are we expected to understand the weather changes that we seem to

experience? And if we accept the inevitable link between science and the

technology payback, how are we expected to solve issues of limited energy

resources that will face the generations that come after us.

Even here, the limitations are of value judgements. We, maybe through our

political and commercial systems, chose what research to carry out with our

resources and efforts. But how do we cope with limitations that are imposed on

us by nature and by the process of discovery. There are too many examples to

illustrate this point. Maybe the whole of science is like this; today's little

bit of knowledge will lead to tomorrow's big discovery. The very nature of black

holes limits the type of knowledge and science that can be done on black holes.

We can safely say that scientists will not be conducting field studies on black

holes in the very near future. Before the discovery of calculus, by Newton or

Leibniz, you take your pick, a lot of science was just difficult if not

impossible. The third form of limitation is one that is limited by the evolution

of things. I'm thinking here of the evolution of the personal computer. There

are those of us who still remember the Sinclair Spectrum computer, things have

moved on since the early eighties!

When we address ourselves to questions like 'should there be limits to science?'

we are surely thinking of Frankenstein sort of creations. Some would also

mention armaments, others question the ethics of certain scientific research

such as stem cell technology. There are, however, more serious things closer to

home that help limit science and these are our own intelligence, our limitations

in understanding, our limitations in learning, our inability to identify

opportunities, our lack of foresight, our capacity to have a herd mentality, our

prejudices, our foibles, our superstitions, our inertia, our indifference, our

lack of interest and so on. In other words our own limitations!

Take care


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