Knowledge, Power, and Responsibility

I’ve been thinking about all these ideas quite a lot lately.

That’s a pretty nebulous statement. I should pin down, more specifically, what I’ve been thinking about.

I’m still working my way through Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, and yesterday I finished a chapter in which Sagan discusses the morality and consequences tied to the advancement of science. The very apt example he uses to discuss this problem is the development first of atomic weapons during World War II, and subsequently the hydrogen bomb in the latter half of the century. Sagan was a vocal proponent of nuclear disarmament and the dangers of the power of that kind of weaponry. He discusses here the responsibility scientists carry to ask these questions when they delve into new territory: what can my research be used to do?

The scientists developing the atomic bomb knew what they were doing, they thought. Their change in attitude after seeing the true destructive potential of the technology shows that they, perhaps, didn’t entirely understand the gravity. The developer of the hydrogen bomb, and those that slung around the argument that such disastrously powerful technology would somehow prevent war, I find much harder to forgive. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be so convinced of something so abhorrent as a need to develop a more powerful nuclear weapon.

If a weapon exists, it will eventually be used in war. It’s kind of like the Chekhov’s Gun of history, it doesn’t tend to fail.

Science is, by nature, a tool, a thing to be wielded to gain knowledge. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. But it’s dangerous to think that science, itself, is somehow noble or free from the possibility of extreme wrong-doing. Sagan asserts that science is unaligned, that it can be turned to any purpose – good or evil. We need science and the knowledge it can bring us if we hope to survive as a species. We cannot forget, though, how dangerous it can be, and what it is capable of creating.

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