Raising the Standard.

Against Scientific Hubris

Science unchecked – and wrongly applied.

I recently saw Iron Man 3 with my family. Amid the explosions, the intense fight scenes, and the comical hubris of Tony Stark, one thing stuck out to me: the potential danger of knowledge and the ethical implications of science gone awry.

Yes, you read that correctly. One would not normally expect such an observation to come from a Marvel movie, but beneath the glitter of booms and bangs, Iron Man 3 poses a thoughtful question: Should we ever limit scientific inquiry?

It is a controversial question. Science seems to possess a special lease on truth these days, as evidenced by the rising popularity of scientism (see Alex Rosenberg, Laurence Krauss, Peter Atkins, etc.). This term is best defined by a quotation from Bertrand Russell:  “What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know” (incidentally, this statement cannot be discovered by science, so if it is true, then it is false.) The special status afforded to science gives it an aura of infallibility that makes questioning it seem silly.

But, while questioning the scientific method itself might be silly, questioning the human application of science is not.

Nor is the posed question novel. Mary Shelley asked the question in Frankenstein. Aldous Huxley asked it in Brave New World. C.S. Lewis asked it in That Hideous Strength. Even Steven Spielberg asked it in his own way in Jurassic Park, based on the novel by Michael Crichton.

While these voices warn us from the pages of novels and the grain of movies, history also warns us through the horrors committed by Nazi scientists, the devastation wrought by the splitting of the atom and the torturous deaths made possible by the use of chemicals in Syria.

Scientific knowledge can most certainly be harmful. This is partly why scientism is so frightening. By illogically discarding entire fields as useless in the pursuit of truth, it gives science a tyrannical role in academia while binding in shackles those fields (philosophy, history, ethics) that would most restrain it. In short, scientism removes the possibility of checks and balances in scientific inquiry.

None of this is to say that science itself should be blamed for whatever cruelties its knowledge perpetuates. Ranting against science itself betrays a certain naïveté. Science is the study of the natural world — the study of physical reality through the use of the scientific method. It is an incredible tool for accessing truth.

But knowledge is power, and people have proven throughout history that power can be inappropriately used. Ethics must meet science somewhere. As we continue to progress appreciably in all fields of science, “Should we ever limit scientific inquiry?” will become a critically important question. Gene therapy is young and still difficult, but should it become easier with scientific advancement, should we even attempt to learn how to cosmetically treat genes in developing embryos (a la Gattaca)? Similarly, 3D printing is not yet at Star-Trek level, but someone has already managed to print a gun with this technology, so it is possible that with improvements in 3D printing anything from guns to pharmaceuticals can be made at home. Should we limit experimentation with this technology? It seems odd — counterintuitive, even — to suggest that we refrain from learning something, but if ethics must meet science somewhere, the question becomes, “Where?”

Ironically, I end with a quotation from another Marvel movie: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Science gives knowledge, knowledge is power, and power requires responsibility.

—Ryan Slauer is a pre-med senior studying economics and Latin.