A few years ago, when I published “The Irrational Atheist,” one of the most controversial statements I made was that Sam Harris’ Extinction Equation, which postulates that the combination of increasingly deadly technologies with religion meant that the human race was at risk of eliminating itself, was an indictment of science, not religion. Religion, after all, has been around for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years, during which time the human race has prospered and multiplied.
Science, on the other hand, only dates back to the 17th century. And as I pointed out in the book, during that time it has produced, either directly or indirectly, the only serious threats to the existence of the human race that man has known since, depending upon your perspective, he was either being hunted by saber-toothed tigers or being drowned to near-extinction during Noah’s flood. Since religion clearly predates any of the various threats to the homo sapiens, and because science has produced them, then logic clearly dictates that if the Extinction Equation is to be taken seriously, the only effective solution is to eliminate science.
What I learned from the subsequent reaction to this unimpeachable logic was that those who have elevated science to the philosophical position normally held by divine revelation understand neither contingent statements nor logic. But for all their ritualistic denunciations of my supposed science-hatred, not a single individual, from Sam Harris down to the lowliest evangelical Internet atheist, ever managed to begin to explain how even the complete elimination of religion from society would reduce, by even an iota, the various risks posed to the race of man by science.
So I read with interest, and no little amusement, a recent New York Times article titled “An Engineered Doomsday.”
We nearly always champion unfettered scientific research and open publication of the results. In this case it looks like the research should never have been undertaken because the potential harm is so catastrophic and the potential benefits from studying the virus so speculative. … In the future, it is imperative that any such experiments be rigorously analyzed for potential dangers – preferably through an international review mechanism, but also by governmental funding agencies – before they are undertaken, not after the fact as is happening in this case.
The observable fact of the matter is that scientists are driven to research potentially harmful knowledge and create potentially catastrophic risks to the planet and the human population for much the same reason that mountain climbers are driven to climb potentially lethal mountains: because it is there. While curiosity can be tolerated in cats, as the consequences of their foolhardiness are only experienced by the cat, the same is simply not true of scientists. And yet, how can one balance the idea of individual human liberty on one hand while simultaneously attempting to avoid the disastrous consequences of indulging the curiosity of scientists by permitting unfettered scientific research?
The solution, fortunately, is relatively obvious and is implicit in the New York Times article. Because most potentially dangerous science has been funded by governments, there are no liberty-based grounds for claiming a scientific right to freely pursue research of any kind. If a scientist is funded in any way by a government agency, or employed by a university that accepts government funding, then clearly the scientist has waived his right to research and to publish whatever interests him rather than accepting the limits imposed by the will of the public that employs him.
It is eminently clear, on the basis of the various scandals and frauds that have engulfed the scientific community in recent years, that scientists harbor neither the judgment to be trusted to recognize what areas of scientific research are dangerous to the public nor the integrity to provide the public with a clear and accurate picture of their activities. Juvenal famously asked, Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? But the more pressing question facing the technologically advanced societies today is Quis procuratiet ipsos scientodes? Who will supervise the scientists?