Thursday, October 13, 2011

To know, or not to know: that is the question! Part I

We in science profess to believe that knowledge is good, for its own sake. Knowledge, the story goes, helps us lead a better-informed life relative to the realities of the world we're in.  That should be better than living according to mythology or imagined but incorrect truth.   At the very least, knowledge is good just for its own intrinsic interest.

Often, debates arise when questions are asked about what kinds of knowledge should be developed, or invested in.  Many scientists argue that trying to suppress knowledge is hopeless.  Science will probe every aspect of the world whether people like it or not, and we just have to be prepared to recognize the realities that are uncovered.

The issue has arisen, for example, with respect to animal experiments, or the horrors of experiments on people, such as the Naziis did to exquisite dismissal of all sense of decency or as even recent investigators do in poor countries -- like epidemiological or drug studies -- that they can't do here.  If we ban some kinds of HIV testing here, pharma and NIH-supported investigators will just do it in Uganda or Guatemala.  The rationale is that the research brings some benefit to the people being studied, it's better than nothing, and anyway eventually the research will lead to great life-saving for the world.

Embryonic stem cell research is another case.  Many have religious objections.  Whether you agree with them or not, if citizens feel some kinds of research should be off-limits, isn't it right that their tax money not be used for what they view as immoral purposes?  The counter arguments often include that if we try to ban it here, someone elsewhere will do it and make money selling the products of the work, depriving Americans of those gains--so we had better legalize it here before we get behind.  And besides, knowledge can't be suppressed.  And we should face the truth of what we can learn about Nature.  Or, in the case of things like germ warfare, if we don't let the Defense Department study it, we can't defend against an enemy who will use it.

Of course, this is  false posturing in the sense that even the most strong advocates of freedom of research would agree (we hope!) that experimental torture should not be approved by review boards of funded by government agencies.  As cruel as we actually are to millions of mice every day, we do at least impose some limits on what can be done to them.  So research is, in reality, censored and the real question, if we're honest about it, is how to balance the political pressure of self-interest, or rationalized balance of impacts, against more purely moral or religious arguments.

But the issues are not only about whether experimenting on hapless mice or Africans, which may not benefit them directly but will eventually benefit everyone, is on balance a moral position.  Knowledge is viewed in that sense as--again on balance--a largely at least unalloyed good in the long term.

But there are other areas of life where, while always a balance of sincere as well as vested interests, there are legitimate ways in which 'to know or not to know' is the legitimate question.  We'll deal with that in Part II of this series.

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