The Wholesale Transformation Of Ignorance Into Fear

During the Renaissance, science fought for and won a degree of independence. It then became possible to state facts (such as the fact that Earth was not the center of the universe) even when those facts were uncomfortable to the rulers of the time. Independent science flourished, and its cumulative power dispelled the traditional pessimistic view of what humanity could accomplish in this world. The rapid expansion of knowledge gave rise to the wonderful optimism of the Enlightenment, epitomized

Feb 2, 1998
Arthur Kantrowitz

During the Renaissance, science fought for and won a degree of independence. It then became possible to state facts (such as the fact that Earth was not the center of the universe) even when those facts were uncomfortable to the rulers of the time. Independent science flourished, and its cumulative power dispelled the traditional pessimistic view of what humanity could accomplish in this world. The rapid expansion of knowledge gave rise to the wonderful optimism of the Enlightenment, epitomized by the idea of progress. When science joined hands with technology, productivity and social progress such as the world has never seen became possible. Optimism was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

There is a great gap between scientific knowledge and public perception. The gap widens whenever power can be gained by pretending to have knowledge where science knows only conflicting conjectures. We know only too well that our conjectures frequently are influenced by our interests, desires, and ideologies. Scientists have a duty to inform the public of possible dangers even when science is still divided on the facts. The performance of that duty to inform in the presence of controversy is the subject of this article.

When a conjecture inspires new hopes or creates new fears, action is indicated. There is an important asymmetry between hope, which leads to actions that will test its basis, and fear, which leads to restriction of options frequently restricting testing of the basis for the fear. As we know only too well, many of our hopes do not survive their tests. However, fears accumulate untested. Our inventory of untested fears has always made humanity disastrously vulnerable to thought control. While science was independent of politics, its greatest triumph was the reduction of that vulnerability.

Today scientists are dependent on public funding for research, and the institutions of dependent science for good reasons are involved in maintaining that funding. To my mind the great challenge for dependent science is to maintain its base of financial support while carrying on the proud tradition of dispelling fear that led to the optimism of the Enlightenment and to the modern world it inspired. But today we see a relapse into the wholesale transformation of ignorance into fear that held us back for millennia.

Scientists are not immune to the currently seductive ideologies in which they are immersed together with the rest of the educated public. Today's dominating version of the fall from the Garden of Eden is that nature is sacred and the works of man defile nature. In this atmosphere it has not been hard for organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to gather many distinguished signatures for a warning that "grave threats imperil the future of humanity and the global environment" (World Scientists Warning to Humanity, Cambridge, Mass., Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992).

But global warming is still only a conjecture. Thus, in response, comparable numbers of distinguished scientists rejected the "Warning" with the Heidelberg Appeal, from which I quote: "We want to make our full contribution to the preservation of our common heritage, the Earth. We are however worried, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, at the emergence of an irrational ideology which is opposed to scientific and industrial progress and impedes economic and social development" (Heidelberg Appeal, Washington, D.C., June 1, 1992). It is worth noting in passing that at least 20 American Nobel Prize winners signed both the UCS Warning and the Heidelberg Appeal.

This new prominence of fear has profoundly altered the way Western society looks at the future. Faith in progress-the Enlightenment's great legacy to humanity- enabled the unprecedented liberation of large portions of hu-manity from lives that were "nasty, brutish, and short." But Western society has begun a retreat from the "Idea of Progress" to "Sustainable Development." Under this fear-driven doctrine, innovators will bear the added burden of proving sustainability, and central planners will be charged with the responsibility of deciding whether proposed advances are sustainable.

After noting that history proves that stasis also involves risks, let's consider an alternative policy: Take the chance that tomorrow's technology will be as much more powerful than today's as today's is more powerful than yesterday's. It would be more comfortable to be able to specify the new technologies that will save us from today's mistakes. However, such predictions are confounded by the fact that surprise initiatives from motivated individuals will always be far ahead of distinguished committees.

The essence of technological surprise was nicely captured by Adlai Stevenson, Sr. in 1964, at the dedication of a Xerox Laboratory for Basic Research. Commenting on the output of a distinguished committee assembled by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to predict forthcoming inventions of the next quarter-century, Stevenson said: "And I find myself on a par with the greatest scientific minds of the time-for I, too, failed to foresee nuclear energy, antibiotics, radar, the electronic computer, and rocketry."

We can learn something important from this spectacular failure. Remember that the quarter-century Stevenson spoke of was exceptional in that technological advances that would make a contribution to winning World War II and the Cold War were very much encouraged and lavishly financed. This should inform us that when technological advances are generally seen as needed, their realization can be accelerated by motivated people. If people were as motivated to innovate today as they were in that quarter-century, the problems we are creating today could safely be entrusted to remediation by tomorrow's technology.

But are we motivating today's youth to devote themselves to the creation of new science and new technology as young people were motivated a half-century ago? Then we did not question that as we created new power we would create the wisdom needed to control it for the benefit of humanity. Today the fears of our times have led us to question the faith that knowledge is always better than ignorance. Today a great literary intellectual like Vaclav Havel, among many others, can seriously advance the prophesy that "technical civilization . . . has reached the limit of its potential, the point beyond which the abyss begins" (address at Independence Hall on receiving the Liberty Medal, July 4, 1994).

These doctrines will not inspire the creativity that the now-humbled "Idea of Progress" provided a half-century ago. That idea was the most precious legacy my generation inherited. When we hear today about our duty to future generations, I cannot avoid sadness that my generation may not have been able to pass on the Enlightenment's magnificent legacy.

Science has a duty to communicate to the public the limits of current scientific knowledge when that information is needed for public policy. Dereliction opens loopholes for a variety of opportunists to hijack the credibility that science has earned. We have some regulatory safeguards that limit such hijacking by industry for financial gain. But we have no protection against hijacking the credibility of science for ideological purposes. This loophole has enabled the renewed wholesale transformation of ignorance into fear to serve the interests of alarmist politicians and plaintiff's attorneys. Since the wages for these services are measured in billions of dollars (for example, global warming research is now federally financed at $1.8 billion per year), control of today's "scientific" fear-mongering is a serious challenge.

Science has powerful methods for distinguishing conjecture from reliable knowledge. Probing questions are put to those who assert novelty, and answers are demanded in open meetings or in open publications. Because originating probing questions is highly honored in the scientific community, science has been able to be receptive to the spectacular flights of imagination that sometimes dramatically broadened humanity's horizons. Because probing questions are anticipated, conjectures in the scientific literature are usually made cautiously. What is needed is a mechanism to subject public alarms claiming a scientific basis to the most probing questions scientists can devise.

Such a mechanism would:

  1. not be involved in funding for research;
  2. recognize that conjectures that have implications for public policy are as strongly influenced by ideologies when advanced by scientists as they are when advanced by nonscientists;
  3. seek expert scientists with opposing ideologies to formulate the probing questions that distinguish conjectures from knowledge; and
  4. enforce a new norm: Anyone claiming scientific credentials who addresses the public or lay officials on scientific facts bearing on public policy should stand ready to publicly answer factual questions not only from the public but also from expert adversaries.

Thirty years ago, I proposed an institution that would operate as such a mechanism (A. Kantrowitz, "Proposal for an institution for scientific judgment," Science, 153:763, 1967). Twenty years ago, a presidential task force laid out detailed suggestions for procedures for an experimental institution, which the press had meanwhile named a Science Court ("An interim report, Task Force of the Presidential Advisory Group on Anticipated Advances in Science and Technology," Science, 193:653, 1976). But, as Nature reported, the "whisperings around Washington in that small circle called the science policy community" successfully opposed this invasion of their turf (W. Lepkowski, Nature, 263:454, 1976). A bibliography on the Science Court, compiled by Jon R. Cavicchi, can be found in Risk-Issues in Health and Safety, 4:171, Spring 1993.

Our bloated inventory of untested fears has already humbled our faith in Progress. Science must create a new institution dedicated to probing the basis of our untested fears.

Arthur Kantrowitz, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College, is currently working on a book, "The Weapon of Openness." He is pleased to acknowledge the help of Sarah Jack.