March 30, 2010

On this day, two beams collided at 7 TeV at the Large Hadron Collider, setting the world record for the highest energy man-made particle collisions to date. The first article based on previous, lower energy LHC collisions has been completed as of March 7. Its results show that 10-14% more charged kaons and pions had been produced than expected, suggesting that the previous models upon which all predictions and assessments of safety have been based are not entirely accurate. Debate is already active about how this should not matter to the overall research model. Thus begins the LHC research program.

Society has divided itself into two parts: those who unquestioningly accept the authority of the scientist in the realm of science, and those who question. Those who accept the authority of science also accept its ability to self-regulate. Others wonder.

Language has divided itself along the same lines. Even "good" science and "bad" science means something vastly different to the scientist than to the non-scientific community. To a scientist, "bad" science means only that methodology or premise is flawed or results have been fudged. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the research should have taken place. For "good" science, the basis for the hypothesis must be valid, the logic clear, and results and conclusion must follow logically from the premise and means. To the holy grail of peer review, these are the only relevant factors. Ethics and risk are outside its purview.

Because most of us feel more strongly about human life and human living cells than we do about some distant chemicals or atoms, stem cell research and human genetic engineering have become the primary battlefield of language. In much of the research in these fields, a possible future discovery which holds the potential to be helpful to humankind requires the current sacrifice of living cells, hundreds of thousands of living cells. Some of those cells might otherwise have become human beings. Yet if the methodology, premise, and results are sound, peer review will always find human stem cell research to be "good" science.

And so we are left with law as the only approximation of ethics which might dictate a common language.

The exercise of law is based on an accumulation of evidence and testimony. Yet where the law touches highly specialised, cutting edge science, we immediately run into problems. Cutting edge science may hypothesise an expected result, but there are no guarantees its findings will not overturn everything that has gone before. Even the most qualified voices in the field may abruptly find their predictions radically overturned:
The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine.
- Lord Ernest Rutherford (1917)
More problematically, every single acceptable expert witness in these fields has an inherent conflict of interest. CERN's own safety analyses were prepared entirely by scientists funded by CERN.

And so we run into a serious dilemma. It seems that in our modern world, the only people we accept as qualified assessors are those who have every reason to resist restrictions on research.

It is the vocation of the scientist to seek out uncharted territory, heedless of the cost. To achieve results, this kind of focused drive cannot admit of doubt. The question can only ever be one of "can" and "can't", never one of "should". Risk is minimally relevant. The pursuit of knowledge is all.

Science also has a long tradition of glossing over risks and ethical difficulties in the name of that pursuit. Too many times in the past, the attitude of science has been that it is easier to seek the justification of history than it is to ask permission. If the data is all, then the methods won't matter. We seem just as willing to build on the science of Castle Bravo as on that of Marie Curie.

If science is to retain the focus it needs to advance knowledge, it cannot be expected to assess either ethics or risk objectively. Yet since the concept of scientific progress drives modern self-images of superiority, we cannot expect other powerful institutions, be they commercial, political, or military, to turn away from the carrot of what a future applied science might offer.

In such a world, who even can watch the watchmen? Who can even suggest that some restrictions on the absolute pursuit of knowledge might be a desirable thing? Who would be willing to abide by them?

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