Peter Hodgson /t is widely recognised that science is not an unmixed blessing. More and more of its applications are seen as dangerous and threatening: poiso
nous chemicals in our food chain; carnage on the roads; crashes of trains and planes; explo
sions of chemical plants such as that at Bhopal; nuclear disasters like Chernobyl; the threat of nuclear annihilation and numerous other exampies. Sometimes we feel that we would be better
off returning to the simple lifestyle of our ancestors.
It is not as simple as that. Whether we like it or not, there is no turn ing back of the clock. Science and its techno logical applications are here to stay, and we have to make the best of it.
In any case, we can reflect that if it were not for the advances of medicine most of us would not be here. Furthermore, it is easy to look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. The further back we go, the more the lives of our ancestors were harsh, brutish and short. Diseases flourished, infant mortality was high, food poor and scarce and work hard and unceasing. Even in Britain, we have only to go hack a hundred years to find that most people lived in grinding poverty. The situation in most African countries shows all too clearly the fate of most men and women throughout history.
The technologies made possible by science have vastly improved the lives of countless millions of people. We have better health, housing and food. Numerous mechanical and electrical devices have removed much of the toil from our lives. We are no longer confined to our village; we are able to travel all Over the world in comfort. We can communicate with each other instantaneously.
All this is true, but the horrific results of technology remain. We know very well that every application of science can be used for evil as well as good. There is nothing new in this. A knife can be used to prepare our food or to kill. The discoveries of nuclear physics can be used to provide the power we need or to make bombs.
It might then be said that in future scientists should be told to discover only the good things. Our taxes should not be used to support scientists who make discoveries with evil applications.
Unfortunately this is
just not possible. Scientists cannot foresee the possible applications of their work. For example, if Roentgen had been told to discover a means to improve medical diagnosis he would never have studied the properties of electrical discharges in gases and so would never have discovered X-rays. If Madame Curie had been told to find a cure for cancer, she would never have discovered radium. This is the difference between applied and fundamental research: the former produces an improvement, the latter a revolution.
This is the essential feature of scientific research: it is done to increase our understanding of nature, not for any practical application. If we do this, the practical applications follow. It is the counterpart in the natural order of the admonition: 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you'.
When the scientific discoveries have been made, and they are being applied in ways that affect our lives, the moral consequences must be carefully examined. In science, as in morals, the good and the evil are intertwined. It requires the greatest care to see that the advances of science are used for the good of society, so that we may feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked.