Can We Not Trust Our Scientists?

Last weekend, I waited out a cold in bed, and watched the last half of a 1957 scifi flick, The 27th Day, which I had seen as a boy and vaguely remembered. The plot was simple enough. For their own reasons, aliens snatched up an American reporter (Gene Barry), a British woman, a Chinese girl, a German physicist and a Soviet soldier. (The females had no careers because this was 1957 and women just stayed home, or something.) To each they gave three capsules that could eliminate all human life within a 1500 mile radius of a given coordinate. The capsules would only function for 27 days, probably because the more advanced a culture, the faster its tech becomes obsolete. The aliens then sent them home, but shortly afterwards announced the situation worldwide. To their credit all five tried to avoid letting the weapons be used. The poor Chinese girl killed herself while the British woman sensibly dumped her capsules into the channel then less sensibly flew to LA to join Gene Barry in hiding. The Soviets needed torture, sodium pentathol and a good bit of lying to get the capsules from the soldier. The physicist happened to be in LA, too, and was being held by a US government that hadn’t yet adopted torture as a matter of course.

As it turned out, those pesky Soviets were waiting until the last minute to cleanse North America of capitalists, but like many movie scientists (and Spock and eventually Sheldon Cooper), the German physicist was also brilliant outside his chosen field. He analyzed some alien markings on the capsules and decided that he could use them to kill only the bad people. Luckily he didn’t screw up that alien conjugation, or he might have killed only the good people. Or the left-handers. In any case he killed a bunch of people whose only crime was being an Enemy of Freedom with no due process. How Randian.

In the movies there are always those good scientists who heroically risk everything to save the world and those evil scientists who risk destroying the world because they like science better than people. In the real world, most scientists spend a lot of time at the bench and test their stuff eight ways from Sunday before even writing a paper, but they are often funded by venal people that are more devoted to the necessities of commerce than the ideals of science.

In Should the Smithsonian and Other Museums Blow Off Big Fossil?, Greg Laden asks whether public institutions should dump the contributions of those venal people in the oil industry that are paying scientists to muddle the public debate over Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), or climate change. Such institutions rely heavily on corporate money because public money has dwindled under low taxation, so Laden and his commenters suggest raising taxes.

I wonder, though, if we can actually ever separate public money from corporate money. My opinion is that even Pharaohs, Caesars and Kings probably had to answer to the business interests of their era, and that Premiers, Prime Ministers and Presidents will always do the same. Probably the best we can do is to erect a bit of a firewall between those at the benches and those in the marketplace, and hope the scientists aren’t any worse than the rest of us.


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