Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Science in Denial

By Louis-Gilles Francoeur
Le Devoir

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Professor Jean-Jacques Salomon accuses scientists of social irresponsibility.

The planet accumulates prospects of catastrophe with its multiple pollutions, climate changes and exhaustion of its resources, in large part because the capitalist system has appropriated science to stimulate the economy and has muzzled scientists to prevent them from debating their inventions and their discoveries.

And, as though that were not enough, humanity finds itself endowed today with new technologies that are potentially even more threatening, such as GMO [genetically modified organisms] and nanotechnologies, which spread their products without an evaluation of their potential impact on what remains of the biosphere beforehand.

A somber, but lucid, portrait of the state of the planet was explained to Le Devoir yesterday under the Indian summer's radiant sun by Professor and author Jean-Jacques Salomon, even as he was still suffering from jet lag. This critic of the development of science will give a public speech tomorrow at the Sciences Court of the UQAM, in which he attacks "the social irresponsibility of scientists" whose discoveries and innovations, he says, have today earned us the atomic menace in addition to climate change, the exhaustion of planetary resources and - from now on - the manipulation of genes and the atom.

Vilified by some who accuse him of being "anti-science" - which he ardently rebuts - and admired by those who would like to see science question itself about the impacts of its discoveries and align itself in pursuit of the common good, Jean-Jacques Salomon sees only "catastrophes" in store for humanity unless there is a complete change in direction, on the order of a reflex for biological survival.

Is he a Malthusian, this occupant of the Sciences, Technology and Society Chair who has just published a book, "Une civilisation à risque" [A Civilization at Risk] with Éditions Charles Leopold Mayer?

"Malthus was wrong about one aspect: the deadlines," explains this author who participates in the work of "Futuribles," a review devoted to analyzing trends of the future. "With a global population that will go from 2 billion to 8 or 9 billion people in less than 150 years, the planet," he says, "will somewhere cease being able to sustain such a global population, especially if emerging countries target, as is their right, the same level of consumption as our Western societies."

The exhaustion of resources, coupled with climate change, will alter the historic political and military dynamic, Jean-Jacques Salomon continues.

"We've been fighting one another since the dawn of humanity," he says, "to get our hands on new lands and new resources. But, today, that's going to change and tomorrow we'll be fighting one another to obtain goods that were once free, such as air and water. Desertification, deforestation and water shortages will push people to emigrate and that will engender completely new conflicts. People think there are solutions, but it's not true, all the more so as in several domains, we are about to cross the thresholds of irreversibility. Moreover, it's because of these threats in sight that the Nobel Peace Prize - and not some other one! - has just been awarded to Al Gore and to the Intergovernmental Group on Climate Change."

Commodity Science

According to him, science and scientists bear an enormous responsibility for the disequilibria that threaten the planet: "In principle, they should pose and resolve problems. But instead, they indulge in making their discoveries and they leave the public to cope with their impact. Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power. But, as my wife says, we can do more than we know today, since the physician ignores biology and the impacts of his inventions on ecosystems." At the limit, he will reject the knowledge if he is confronted with its consequences, by saying that he is not responsible for the use of his discoveries. Just as Oppenheimer, father of the United States' atomic bomb, rejected responsibility for its use against civilians.

In the Seventeenth Century, Jean-Jacques Salomon relates, The Royal Society in England endowed itself with statutes that obliged it to stick to the exploration of the properties of matter outside of any "philosophical, theological, or political" considerations. Science continues to present itself this way, but that's just to better ignore its impact, this author adds.

So the university defined itself then as the fief of this science that deepened knowledge for the good of all, leaning on a tradition of independence with respect to the time's two great threats to scientists: the Church and the State.

But with the steam engine and the industrialization of the Nineteenth Century, Jean-Jacques Salomon continues, capitalism transformed science and researchers into "commodities." Today, he explains, the majority of scientists are no longer in universities, but in the research arms of multinationals and the military apparatus. And even the university is crushed by the weight of these economic actors, since the search for funds often forces academicians to allow companies to dictate their priorities.

Forced to sign confidentiality agreements, which prevent them from adding to humanity's scientific patrimony, most scientists today, he says, do not question the system from which they risk being irreparably ejected in cases of dissidence or pranks. They "enjoy" their discovery, the pleasure of excelling through their publications, and confine themselves in what Jean-Jacques Salomon calls the syndrome of denial, which leads scientists to divest themselves of all responsibility for the use of their work by politicians, companies and even their own institutions of higher learning, which themselves often have strategic interests to protect.

Dissidence and Public Debate

The exits from this planetary crisis are not numerous, agrees this researcher - who nonetheless refuses to sink into complete defeatism. "There's dissidence, like that of Sakharov, father of the Soviet bomb, whose positions contributed in the end to that system's fall. Einstein did the same with a durable impact. Certainly, the machine is powerful and that leads many researchers to think, wrongly, that if they oppose it, they'll be replaced by someone else who will do the work in their place. Yes, that risk is real." But, he says, in substance, that's the way that we force debates, that we make consciousness of the stakes involved in science develop.

The difference between now and the era when scientists sought to protect themselves from the Church, the Inquisition or new States, is that today "no one can protect himself against the power of the military and the economy" because they control everything.

But if an author like Daniel Greenberg ("Science for Sale") concludes from that that there's nothing more to do, Jean-Jacques Salomon sees a new generation of scientists burgeoning who want to enlarge the frontiers of the disciplines, who want to pose all questions, as in the cases of GMO, nanotechnologies, and assisted procreation that are masking, he believes, a real attempt at eugenics, which would become acceptable because it's no longer the product of a Hitlerian dictatorship, but of a free world and free market. As for other scientists, he is not tender towards them: "By their rejection and denial of social, environmental and political consequences, they refuse quite simply to know whether or not we are collectively crashing into a wall."

Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.


No comments: