Science, Conscience, Ethics and Activism

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The pursuit of Science, whether it be in the disciplines of ornithology, conservation biology, wildlife management, raptor biology, etc., can be highly technical. Science itself is a structured approach to the accumulation and analysis of data so as to remove biases and uncover “truths” that are understandable and acceptable pending improved or corrected methods of doing the same. Thus science is uniquely a human endeavor.

And humans are themselves complex individuals, not only physically, but psychologically, emotionally, etc. Over time, we have seen the scientific community assert and often implement a view that Science itself should be placed apart from otherwise non-scientific intellectual or emotional considerations of men. It has been held that Science, or knowledge gained by the pursuit of Science, should not be hindered by inordinate questioning of motives or end usages of its pursuit; otherwise human squabbles could hinder the expansion of human knowledge. In particular, the scientific community has attempted to promulgate the idea that international relations between nations and between scientists working in dispersed settings throughout the international communities of mankind should set aside international politically-based differences in order to serve the greater scientific “needs” of mankind.

As a result, there has been a general unity amongst the international scientific community, and the principal exception to this generalization has been in preserving “national security” goals of individual nations.

At the same time, there are more frequent questionings within the scientific community about certain “ethical” issues. For instance, the use of stem cells in basic research has been questioned on ethical grounds, as has certain forms of cloning.

Ethics considerations within the scientific community are unusually applied to issues directly related to humanity and human subjects of research protocols. For example, ethics are traditionally a concern in research on human test subjects, but rarely does the research of human diseases using animal proxies as test subjects become an ethical issue within the scientific community. We see “animal rights” activists raising such ethics issues, but normally not the scientists conducting the research.

The Ornithological Council has published a set of ethical guidelines to the use of wild birds in research, but again, rarely do the researchers themselves carry on debates on such issues, other than concern over legal accountability or social accountability issues from those outside the scientific community.

Ethical dissuasions over the ramifications of scientific research seem to be rare within the scientific community. For instance, several American universities and government agencies carry out detailed, long-term research on the “control” and eradication of bioorganisms declared to be “pest species”, including a number of predator species. We know from ecosystem monitoring and conservation biology studies that entire ecosystems have been altered in a very negative way by the large-scale removal of predators, fossorial mammals, graniverous birds, and other animals. We have seen large scale negative changes in fire regimes, balances in vegetative species compositions of entire landscapes, spread of non-native species within ecosystems, and other results from predator and pest management. Yet, rarely is the ethics of this discussed, perhaps because this sort of science and management is driven by economic concerns, and economics’ concerns tend to stiffly ethics concerns in such cases, especially where human livelihoods are involved and loss of human life is not.

What would happen if a major professor or researcher made a decision based on conscience to not review a paper for publication in a major research journal, on the basis of his conscience, say over the issue of predator control and its ramifications? And what if that professor publicized his expression of conscience in a campaign to publicly air the issue? How would the scientific community react?

We have a very interesting development in the world of science, not in the field of wildlife research or biology or ornithology, but in the staid discipline of physics. An Israeli physicist, Dr. Damiel Amit, working in Rome, Italy, has, to my knowledge, raised issues of conscience twice now relating to the use of science in modern warfare. I will not go into detail on his concerns, but they extend to both his own native government, Israel, and the United States, and Dr. Amit has gone public with his concerns based on conscience. You can read the content of two of his communications at http://oznik.com/news/130403.html and http://www.pjpo.org/letter_amit.html

In all likelihood, the activist efforts of Dr. Amit will make the scientific community feel ill at ease. Some may label Dr. Amit a crackpot, a reactionary, or perhaps a lunatic. Yet, if you check the resume and publications of Dr. Amit, you will see that he is a highly esteemed scientist in his field. This atypical display of activist conscience will no doubt be much appreciated by other people of conscience, particularly those outside the scientific community.

Other scientists have displayed similar propensity towards conscience-based activism. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the effort to develop the atomic bomb, later had grave misgivings about what he had helped accomplish, and helped lead efforts to limit the further development and deployment of even more advanced weapons. Aldo Leopold, the great ecologist and conservationist, spoke of “ecological atrocities” and encouraged citizens to “throw their weight around” (his words) in opposing land management that would further degrade the physical environment and threaten biodiversity. Brian Czech has worked to promote the implementation of a steady state economy, not only in wildlife curricula, but in human society so as to reduce the greatest threat to wildlife in the aggregate.

Science, in and of itself, is an impassive force, a tool used to organize knowledge for human use and implementation. Science itself has no conscience, and can be applied for human good or for harm to humans, their societies and the planet. Much harm has been done by the implementation of knowledge obtained by the scientific method. Weapons of war are now more lethal than ever before, primarily because of applied science. Degradation of the earth is more acute than ever before, and applied science seems to have contributed far more to earth’s degradation than to its healing.

Science itself has no conscience, but scientists can and do have consciences. But conscience without a voice and without action is hardly effective in causing change. For conscience to make a difference, it must be acted on, and activism can be described as the energizing of conscience into speech and more importantly, into effective action. We need science to be balanced with conscience and the result to be implemented with activism.

Thanks to Dr. Amit and others who have shown that this can be done, even in our troubled times.

The writer is a member of several falconry and ornithological clubs and organizations. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from California, USA.

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