In 1939, Albert Einstein penned a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. The letter was instigated, and largely written, by Hungarian immigrant and physicist Leo Szilard, who was concerned with the technological aims of the Nazi regime. After hearing the eminent British physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford dismiss the idea of obtaining useful energy from nuclear reactions, the unimpressed Szilard conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, which eventually led to the development of both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs.
Six years later, however, Szilard was disenthralled. He organized opposition among atomic scientists to the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, and he even penned a short story portraying himself being prosecuted, Nuremberg-style, for war crimes. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he stated, “I opposed it with all my power, but I’m afraid not as effectively as I should have wished.” Einstein joined in Szilard’s opposition, writing to a Japanese philosopher, “I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan but I could not do anything at all to prevent that fateful decision.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Were these eminent physicists, giants of the modern scientific world, anti-scientific in their opposition to the use of the knowledge and power they themselves made possible? Or was their opposition based not in science but in morals?
Fast-forward to September of last year, when the premiere scientific journal Nature published an editorial, in advance of the U.S. mid-term elections, decrying the attitude of American conservatives with respect to science. “There is a growing anti-science streak on the American right that could have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts — including regulation of environmental and other issues and stem-cell research,” the editors of Nature worried. They listed their concerns: “Limbaugh . . . has called climate-change science ‘the biggest scam in the history of the world’. The Tea Party’s leanings encompass religious opposition to Darwinian evolution and to stem-cell and embryo research — which [Glenn] Beck has equated with eugenics.”
Take a look at that list of charges: One of the items does not belong with the others. The first two items — whether climate change and evolution occur — are indeed questions for science. Some conservatives may challenge standard evolutionary science, and almost all reject the nihilist philosophy commonly (and illegitimately) drawn from evolution. But far fewer reject mainstream science’s account of the age and history of the universe, and the subject of evolution itself remains a legitimate pursuit for biology to elucidate. Similarly, many conservatives are skeptical of the assertion of climate change, their suspicions based in part on the aggressive environmentalist agenda the science is sometimes used to support. Nevertheless, whether global warming is occurring is ultimately a scientific question, to be determined by scientific investigation and evidence.
The subject of embryonic stem cells, however, is entirely different. We can gather evidence about the age of the universe, or whether evolution occurred, or whether the earth is warming, through the scientific method. That method cannot tell us, however, whether it is right or wrong to destroy embryos for the sake of medical research. The question of embryonic stem cells is not one of science; it is a question of morals and ethics. Individuals on the opposite sides of stem-cell research can agree on the scientific facts of embryonic stem-cell research and yet remain adamantly opposed when asked whether it should be done.
In its September editorial, Nature invokes President Barack Obama’s promise in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place.” Yet this presidential flourish brings up the question of just what science’s “rightful place” is. Overturning previous bans of government funding on stem-cell research, President Obama claimed that he was rejecting a “false choice between sound science and moral values.” Yet it is precisely moral values that are in question. There is no dispute about whether embryonic stem-cell research destroys embryos, or whether knowledge can be gained from doing so. The question is whether it is nevertheless right. To oppose embryonic stem-cell research is not to oppose science. It is simply, uncompromisingly, to support morality.
Einstein’s scientific authority is unquestioned. When he, Szilard, and the community of physicists came out against the use of the very technology their genius helped to build, they were never accused of being “anti-science.” Their opposition was recognized as morally and ethically based, even by those who disagreed with them. Sadly, today’s medical and biological community seems wedded to the idea that the mere ability to gain knowledge by doing a thing makes it right to do so. The moral circumspection of their professional forebears is missing.
“Reassuringly, polls continue to show that the overwhelming majority of the US public sees science as a force for good, and the anti-science rumblings may be ephemeral,” the Nature editorial concludes. Science is a force for good, but not when used blindly. When science ceases to ask whether it should do a thing, and when ethical questions are simply dismissed as “anti-science,” the noble enterprise of science is well on the way to catastrophe.