Saturday, February 25, 2006

Pursuing Science in the Country of the Blind

Questions about scientific research standards and ethics appear frequently in the news these days: from debating the appropriate guidelines for scientific research (starting with South Korean’s cloning debacle) to what type of scientific research ought to be conducted (or banned) in the first instance (those pesky embryonic stem cells, for instance). At a time when the press to come to a consensus about what direction scientific research ought to take seems to be intensifying, and important scientific policy decisions await on the horizon, I have a slightly different question: are we sure we can trust our own advice?

Forget for a moment where these scientific recommendations come from – the President’s Council, Congress, general referendums, as-yet-unformed advisory groups, or elsewhere – and let’s ask ourselves about the shared assumptions and beliefs, common to all of us at the most basic level as human beings living in a social society, that lie at the heart of our beliefs about what science can and should accomplish.

What the hell am I talking about? Thanks for asking. I was re-reading The Country of the Blind, by H.G. Wells, and stumbled upon the following passage, which offers a helpful illustration of what I’m getting at:

"Those queer things that are called the eyes, and which exist to make an agreeable depression in the face, are diseased, in the case of Nunez, in such a way as to affect his brain. They are greatly distended, he has eyelashes, and his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant irritation and distraction."

"Yes?" said old Yacob. "Yes?"

"And I think I may say with reasonable certainty that, in order to cure him complete, all that we need to do is a simple and easy surgical operation--namely, to remove these irritant bodies."

"And then he will be sane?"

"Then he will be perfectly sane, and a quite admirable citizen."

"Thank Heaven for science!" said old Yacob, and went forth at once to tell Nunez of his happy hopes.
Wells asks us to tease out the fundamental assumptions that are taken for granted in our pursuit of science (or medicine, or biotechnology). Some of which might appear to a disinterested (perhaps non-human? or non-acculturated?) observer to be slightly bizarre or problematic.

Should we re-examine our obsession with the extension of life? What about our quest for improved and enhanced performance in all aspects of our lives? Or our belief that human beings, in some important way, are special? These are themes of the most general nature, certainly not an exhaustive list, that act as often implicit contributors to our scientific discourse.

But perhaps this is not delving deeply enough. Are there unstated assumptions and biases so deep-seated and ingrained that we lack all capacity to conceptualize them?

These are the biggest of questions and ones that I fully recognize are difficult to answer in a helpful manner. Nevertheless, as we either praise or condemn, depending on your point of view, the development of science and technology it’s worth a moment of reflection to wonder at the motivations that underlie the whole grand scheme.


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