Andrew Brown and ‘Evil’ Science

The smell of burning straw men is, again, wafting over Andrew Brown’s latest contribution to Comment is Free:

This isn’t bad science. It’s evil science

How helpful is it to say that science is neutral in itself, and what makes it good or evil are political decisions? Scientists, we’re told, deliver knowledge, and it is up to society to decide what to do with it. It is seldom added, except by Marxist critics of science like Richard Lewontin, that “society” – in effect government and big business – decides what knowledge scientists will look for. Most science costs money. Big science costs big money. It is hardly surprising when the suppliers of that money do so on the basis that they will eventually profit.

The idea that Brown wishes to contest is that science, in itself, is morally neutral and his reference point for this argument is an article in the current issue of Nature on the old Soviet bioweapons programme, which I’d link to if Nature weren’t charging 18$ for access.

The core of Brown’s argument resides in these two paragraphs:

Some things, however, are so evil in themselves that it’s hard to imagine them serving any good end. The current issue of Nature has an article about Soviet bioweapons research, which was for the most part a tremendous waste of money. But the programme did produce a couple of successes, and one of these was to engineer the bacterium that causes Legionnaire’s disease so that it would also cause the victim’s immune system to attack the myelin sheathing of their nervous system. In effect, they had invented a rapid, contagious form of multiple sclerosis.

This isn’t bad science. It’s wicked, or evil science. There isn’t even any respectable military justification, since such a weapon must, by its nature, be mainly useful against a civilian population. The German developers of poison gas in the first world war at least intended it to be used against enemy soldiers and the same, I believe, is true of the Americans who developed napalm. The fact that both cause particularly horrible deaths only adds to their military efficiency, since it is part of the purpose of a weapon to frighten those of the enemy it cannot kill.

Ah yes, its the old and rather tiresome argument from personal incredulity, which crops up pretty regularly in debates around the existence (or otherwise – most definitely otherwise) in the general form:

I can’t imagine/understand X therefore Y

The typical ‘theological’ form of this argument runs something along the lines of ‘I can’t imagine how the universe could have come into existence from nothing therefore it must have been created ex-nihilo by god’.

Brown’s own variation on this particular theme rest squarely on his inability to conceive of a morally acceptable, or even neutral, use for the scientific knowledge generated during the development of the Soviet’s amped-up strain of Legionella and this is where, of course, his argument falls apart. If we set aside the ultimate purpose of this research for a moment and think purely in terms of the research process, the creation of bacterial strain that prompts the victim’s own immune system to attack their own nervous system will inevitably require the scientist involved in the project to carry out detailed investigations of bacteria, itself, in addition to, of course, the working of the human immune and nervous systems, generating information and knowledge that might easily – in the right hands – lead to beneficial discoveries; a more effective treatment for Legionnaire’s disease, perhaps, or maybe a new insight or two into the cause(s) and/or pathology of either multiple sclerosis or, more generally, of immune and/or nervous system disorders.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should condone or support, morally-speaking, bioweapons research programmes. From a moral standpoint it would be preferably if scientific investigations into the nature of the Legionella bacteria and the human and immune system were being conducted with a clearly beneficial intent in mind, but then that one of paradoxes of scientific inquiry – even if such investigations were being carried out for clearly beneficial purposes there is nothing whatsoever to prevent any discoveries that emerge from research being taken up and used, by other scientists, to create the kind of bioweapons that Brown finds so morally objectionable.

Perhaps the most famous expression of this paradox lies in Albert Einstein’s famous telegram of May 1946 – the full history of which is explored here – in which he makes the following observation*:

Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

*The most popular ‘version’ of this quotation has Einstein ruefully stating ‘If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.’, a misquotation that erroneously conflates this thoughts on nuclear weapons/energy with his later (1954) thoughts on the situation of scientists in post-war America:- “If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.”

Einstein was, of course, keenly aware of this paradox, not just because his famous mass-energy equation sits at the heart of the atomic revolution but also because of the letter he co-wrote, with Leo Szilárd, to President Roosevelt, shortly before the outbreak of World War, warning of the possibility that Nazi Germany would seek to develop its own atomic weapons, a letter that many credit as the key stimulus that persuaded the US to set up the Manhattan Project.

After drifting into empty hand-waving – ‘This isn’t bad science. It’s wicked, or evil science.’ – Brown tosses in the obligatory (for CiF) false comparison with the arts:

Perhaps this is not a problem that only scientists face. Think of all the artists and writers and musicians who under totalitarian regimes must compromise or be silent. But their dilemma can look less sharp if we consider that propaganda makes bad art, so that the writer who produces hackwork in praise of Stalin isn’t actually making a choice between art and silence, but between bad art and silence, which is very much easier: choose silence.

Brown is clearly no fan of Soviet Realism but then Soviet Realism does not necessarily provide conclusive evidence that propaganda makes bad art.

The obvious modern counterpoint to Brown’s argument is the great German documentary film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl, who was vilified during her own lifetime for her work on Nazi propaganda film, most famously ‘Triumph of the Will’ which documented the Nazi Party’s 1934 Numemberg Conference. Since her death, in 2003, Riefenstahl has, however, been retrospectively – and,quite correctly – lauded as an “acclaimed pioneer of film and photographic techniques”, an artist whose creative and technical innovations, which include the use of cranes, tracking rails and multiple cameras, mark her out as being as important a figure in the history of film-making as Orson Wells. Indeed, much of the seductive power of the pre-war Nazi propaganda films stems directly from the modernist aesthetic that Reifenstahl created with her innovative camera work.

However, if we cast our temporal net more widely, then we have to ask ourselves what much of the religious and political art of the Renaissance was, if not propaganda – a conspicuous demonstration of the wealth, power and authority of the Church and the ruling elite of the period.  Indeed, if one is looking for the perfect marriage of great art and political propaganda one need look no further than the Royal Collection and Hans Holbein’s formidable, and oft-imitated,  portraits of Henry VIII, not least amongst which was his lost full-length portrait, part of the Whitehall Mural that was destroyed by fire in 1698.

Returning to the Soviets, or rather to communism more generally, propaganda has shown itself to be equally capable of generating bad science, whether in the form of Lysenko-Michurinism of the curious brand of Chinese exceptionalism that, until quite recently, saw Chinese anthropologists mounting the outright denial of the ‘Out of Africa’ theory in favour of the absurd, and roundly debunked, claim that the Chinese race was, uniquely amongst modern human, descended directly from Homo Erectus. Where, I wonder, is Brown’s sympathy for the scientists who laboured under these regimes, those who were forced to choose between bad science and silence, or worse the gulag or ‘re-education’ camp. Do they not merit the same plea in mitigation? Is their dilemma any less sharp, or are scientists, and scientists alone, to be held to a different moral standard?

Whatever – Brown’s foray into realms of propaganda and bad art is ultimate only a sideshow as he quick to remind his readers:

But the science involved in engineering a contagious form of multiple sclerosis is absolutely rock solid, just like the science of the German doctors who froze Russian prisoners to death to discover how hypothermia works.

Well yes… and the use of scientific information and evidence that was obtained in manifestly unethical circumstances has long been, and indeed, continues to be a subject of keen, and often hotly contested – debate within the scientific community and beyond. Indeed, as Brown has seen fit to introduce the issue of the Nazi hypothermia research that was undertaken at Dachau by Doctor Sigmund Racher, it should be noted that when Dr Robert Pozos, then (1988) of the University of Minnesota, proposed to publish an analysis and evaluation of the long-suppressed Alexander report into Racher’s ‘work, wit a discussion of its possible applications in modern hypothermia research, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine flatly vetoed the publication Pozos’ paper. In time – perhaps – some small elements of research undertaken by Nazi scientists during the Holocaust may be brought through into modern scientific research but it has to be remembered that must, if not most of the ‘research’ conducted by Nazi scientists during that period has either already been superseded by more recent discoveries or was of no scientific value in the first place, this being particularly true of the Nazi’s effort to investigate biological notions of ‘race’.

As is invariably the case, Brown chooses to end his latest missive with an obvious strawman:

It really won’t do to say that scientific knowledge is neutral and beautiful, and only the uses to which it is put can have moral significance. Mathematics may be that way, but nothing that changes the world as science does can be lifted above moral judgment.

Much as in the case of the specious allegations of scientism levelled against some Gnu Atheists, the position that Brown attacks here is one that no one seriously holds, not even the leader of the Soviet bioweapons research team that that Brown [sort of] in his article:

The leader of one of these efforts, Yury Ovchinnikov, is supposed to have said: “Nobody would give us money for medicine. But offer one weapon and you’ll get full support.”

Whether Ovchinnikoc actually said anything of the sort is anyone’s guess but the wholly pragmatic view his supposed comments set out is anything but the solipsistic position that Brown attacks in his final paragraph.

Science does not operate in an ethical vacuum and no one knows that fact better that than the scientists themselves. Some may, on occasion, be naively oblivious of the possible consequences of their work once it gets in the hands of others who operate with much less altruistic motives. Others may be content to set aside ethical considerations for pragmatic reasons, like Ovchinnikov, or even because they are, themselves, ‘true believers’ in a particular political or religious ideology but none of these positions lead inexorably to the view that it only the uses to which science is put that is of moral significance.

How science is done is equally important as the manner in which it ultimately put to use, hence the existence of ethics committees, and nowhere has that understanding ever been more powerfully or eloquently expressed than by a scientist, the late Jacob Bronowski, standing ankle-deep in a waterlogged patch of ground at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

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  • Squirrel Nutkin

    My immediate reaction to Brown’s article was that it was easy and pappy, with an authentic tone of claptrap percolating out from beneath. Many thanks for giving it a richly deserved drubbing.

    I am beginning to suffer from the irrational fear that one day Brown will tug at his face and tear away a rubber mask, revealing himself to be – Brian Appleyard! Has anyone seen them in the same room at the same time?

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  • The assertion that propaganda makes bad art seem a tad bizarre – does Brown think that all those Annunciations, Crucifixions and so forth that the Renaissance produced are bad? Because they are certainly all propaganda for a supremely irrational and intolerant ideology.