Quote of the Day - 22 November 2006

Nov 22 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

In part to counteract the limited amount of time that I have available to write posts, I've decided to start a "quote of the day" series. Most of the quotes will be related to science or academics (or any of the other central issues I talk about here). Some may be chosen because they seem to be relevant to something going on in the world today; most won't be. The quotes will usually be short, but this first one isn't. Feel free to use the comments section of this post as an open thread, to talk about whatever.

Knowledge has been accumulating at an ever increasing rate, and knowledge, once it is available, can be used for evil as well as for good. It was inevitable that a day would come when the expanding body of knowledge would sweep across the danger level. That day, as you know, has come - and passed. Knowledge is already available by means of which men could wreck the civilization of the world -and the growth of knowledge continues faster than ever before.

It is imperative, in our day, that the applications of knowledge be controlled, and controlled not in one nation alone but throughout the world. This problem is the central problem of our time. A wise solution, enforced, will be the greatest landmark in the history of the human race. If no solution is found, there may be no more history.

The discussion of this paramount problem and its solution should be carried on with a clear understanding of the nature of science and of its applications. Statesmen and citizens alike should use the same language and understand what it is they are saying. Otherwise, the beneficial applications of knowledge may be suppressed along with the dangerous applications, that is, the baby may be thrown out with the bath; or, what is even more important, science may be confused with the applications, and to use another well-worn metaphor, the goose may be killed which lays the golden eggs.

It is for this reason that the scientists are beginning to talk more freely than hitherto. They speak rather haltingly, to be sure, and somewhat diffidently, but they are driven by a sense of urgency. The subject must be clarified, and those who actually practice the discipline should be able to speak with some authority. What they have to say is not entirely new. A few men, including an occasional scientist, have explained the subject fairly well. But others have written nonsense, and the people, if they can, are left painfully to distinguish the good from the bad.

So the scientists are beginning to talk. They will not all say the same things, they will not necessarily agree on details, but if a sufficient number raise their voices, the essential features of the discipline will emerge rather clearly. This clarification of the problem which overshadows our civilization is the first duty of the scientists. The solution of the problem, and its enforcement, are the responsibility of all men-including the scientists, but only in their position as human beings, not as specialists.

This first quote comes from noted astronomer (and telescope namesake) Edwin Hubble's essay "On the Nature of Science." The danger level Hubble was referring to was nuclear war, but the principle applies to climate change, various medical issues, and really to any number of points where science comes into contact with public policy. The importance of making sure that everyone understands what the scientists are saying about these things is at least as important now as it was then.

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