When we think to encourage our children into "understanding science", and
into "careers in science", what do we mean? Where does science actually
fit in today's world which, together with its applications in technology,
it is so largely shaping?
The genesis of science is the reduction of ignorance. Along the insecure
frontier between ignorance and knowledge, different degrees of uncertainty
||What we don't know but
know we could know.
||What we don't know but
think we could know.
||What we don't know and
don't know whether we can know.
||What we don't know and
know we can't know.
||What we don't know and
don't know we don't know.
forgotten on pain of death.
The practical thrills and achievement of science come under 1 and 2; all
of which is part of the epistemology of science, which though complicated is -
or should be - clear.
The ethics of science is a more difficult, and murkier, scene. Voices are
raised, and those unused to philosophical categories are strongly engaged.
To them, the uncertainties of science are distasteful, and should not be
harped on. Yet, as Sir Hermann Bondi, Scientific Adviser to several
government departments, found,
"it was very much harder to convey scientific uncertainty and its
limits than to explain clear knowledge".
["Science in Parliament",
Vol. 56 No.4, Autumn 1999, p.5]
Today's most immediate drama - the BSE upheaval - concerns the handling of
science's uncertainties. Under the last government officials and some vets
in the Ministry of Agriculture knew there was a new cattle disease (BSE)
which might have derived from some new feed produced, but not described,
by the usual manufacturers. The disease might or might not be
transmissible to other species, including humans. There was apparently an
increase, and some concentrations, of the known "corresponding" human
disease, CJD. Officials concealed this from ministers, and junior
scientists were ordered to rewrite their reports. Later, when ministers
were informed, they also decided to keep quiet. When certainty finally
emerged, it turned out disastrous.
There had been ignorance and culpable concealment on the part of the
industry, the relevant scientists, the officials and the ministers. In
hindsight it is obvious that the Precautionary Principle should have been
applied, but it was not.
Decisions which have to be taken on inadequate evidence are often about
the safety of people - nearby, far away, unborn; animals; plants; and of
course, last but not least, about the hopes of the scientist and of the
scientist's political, commercial, and even academic masters. "Risk
assessment" may take place, but it is an art, not a science: forecasting
the future, on the basis of past experience, which may or may not have
been scientifically evaluated. These decisions and those which later face
his or her colleagues, professional body, regulators or tribunals, and at
the top of the heap the country's legislators, are value, not scientific,
judgements. They will be taken within the prevailing moral and political
climate: there is no alternative.
This climate may well be decent, but there are moral microclimates, some
good, some bad, and when it comes to that affecting decisions on the
safety of the exploitation of new science, over the last twenty years it
has not been very good.
What is the difference between "ethics" and "morality" ? Ethics is the
actual analysis and discussion of what actions are right and what are
wrong, and how one can know the difference. Thus the statement - "it is
about saving lives, so it must be ethical" is ethically illiterate.
Equally the two enjoinders "Thou shalt not kill", and "An eye for an eye", are
both ethical statements: but we judge one right and the other wrong. Every
human decision, action, word or gesture is susceptible of ethical analysis
- including any prevailing moral climate.
Looming over the BSE saga, because smiled upon in high places, was the
false god of economic growth measured in money terms - otherwise
commercial profit. A risk to public health had been recognised, but to
have taken the draconian measures needed to reduce it would have cost the
industries money, or the state in making up their loss, or both. And both
possibilities were hateful to the governments under which these policies
began. This value judgment - the operational morality of the time - was
deeply ingrained. We are now shocked, and rightly. A few of us are dead.
This elevation of economic growth to the throne of the social values is
one thing, but it has to be considered together with another: the recent
elevation of science itself to the throne earlier occupied by revealed
religion. The Council for the Public Understanding of Science has
sometimes sounded like the Society for the Propagation of Christian
Knowledge: eager to preach the benefits of scientific achievement, slow to
mention either the problems or the scale of uncertainty, and silent about
the dangers the public can perfectly well see for itself.
Have the two even begun to fuse already? (The getting of wealth is the
beginning of virtue, and it is a mainline duty of science to make it
easier.) Today, the industry lobbies are bad-mouthing the Precautionary
Principle, as if the examination of science's gift-horses were an
anti-science activity. We are in any case bound to observe the Principle,
through the Rio Declaration and the European Treaties. So how to interpret
A spokesman for Novartis a few months ago told the Parliamentary and
Scientific Committee that:
"if the existence of reasonable doubt (about the safety of a product
or procedure) is sufficient to justify 'the precautionary approach',
then reasonable evidence should also be sufficient to allow the
product/service to proceed."
The logical failure is striking: do Novartis researchers not know the
distinction between the inadequacy of accumulated examples to verify a
statement, and the sufficiency of one negative to falsify it? (If in
practice they did not, the firm would soon be out of business.)
It seems to me salvation can only lie in the rigorous elucidation and
generalisation of the Precautionary Principle. The Novartis formulation
falls foul both of the first principle of risk analysis - start by
assessing the state of your own (or public) ignorance - and of the best
formulation of the precautionary principle, which goes:
"Absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm."
About here, we also reach for Arthur Kornberg's immortal saying:
"I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which,
looked at in the right way, does not become still more
[From his "For the Love of Enzymes", Harvard,
Yet last week, answering a question about "precaution in the face of
uncertainty", as opposed to "precaution in the face of evidence of
possible harm", Sir John Krebs, of the Food Protection Agency, suggested
"Precaution can only be administered with evidence."
Which can be right only when the search for "evidence of harm" continues
unabated. (That the EU Risks Assessment programme has 100,000 chemicals,
2000 of them "new", to examine, together with their interactions,
indicates the scale of the exercise.)
So what do we do about it? The analogy between science and church may
have an exploitable ethical spin-off, to which the British Association, in
its "mission" to the young might look. Professsor Josef Rotblat, winner of
the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps the last survivor of the Los Alamos team,
and certainly among its most ethically conscious, in 1995 put forward the
idea of a quasi-Hippocratic oath for research scientists. It is after all
the man - usually man - in the laboratory who has the bright idea for a
new weapon "who is at the heart of the arms race", to quote Lord
Zuckerman. And, with an idea for cheaper feed, he was at the heart of the
During the Cold War, some 70% of scientists are thought to have worked
for, or at the expense of, the world's entirely secretive Defence
Industries: many still do. Joe Rotblat had it in mind to discourage young
science graduates from going into these industries, to release us from
increasingly irrelevant expenditures and hideous misuse of scientific
Since the end of the Cold War, an unknown but huge number of scientists
have gone into the equally secretive world of the multinational
corporations. A whole new calculus of environmental and health risk from
mistaken judgments and irresponsible advocacies of new products and
processes has come to the fore, and those who favour the oath could well
tack these onto the Hippocratic conception; and add the duty to
whistle-blow. (If not you, who? If not now, when?)
The oath would have to be voluntary, but no doubt the best - the most
intellectually alert and politically and socially conscious of new
graduates - would be the ones who took it first, and this should in theory
lead to a downward trend in the competitive appeal of firms who recruited
non-jurors (to use a historical name for those who will not swear to
One difficulty is the lack of experience of anything so wide. The
Hippocratic oath itself - "First: do no harm" etc - was and remains
intended only for those who belong to a registered corps of people wholly
devoted to the medical care of individuals. It might seem that to scatter
about the invitation to sign the new oath among beginners in many branches
of knowledge - from pistons to prions, from cyber to behavioural
psychology, from cutting electrons to cloning electors - could...well,
It seems well worth working out.
© Wayland Kennet, 2000.