Doing advanced chemistry is immoral

Sunday, 17 February, 2008

Yes, being too good at chemistry is immoral, because only God should be that good at chemistry. At least, that is what Dietram Scheufele suggests is a common argument in the United States. Russell Blackford has a recent blog entry about it:

More research surely needs to be conducted to confirm whether the basis for widespread moral rejection of nanotechnology in the US is primarily religious in origin, particularly whether it is based on fears of “playing God”. However, the reported research is certainly suggestive of such thinking. If that’s correct, we have another example of why popular US-style religion is incompatible with the development of a broad public policy based on freedom, reason, and the advancement of science. It’s not necessarily a matter of explaining the situation more effectively: the people interviewed were not ignorant, so it’s claimed, but morally opposed to something that they actually did understand.

It appears yet again that the ultimate solution is not more explaining, spinning, “framing”, or what have you, even if these are necessary. We need a direct, long-term, unremitting campaign to weaken the cognitive and moral authority of religion. We need to attack the root of the problem by doing whatever we can to create a more rational and sceptical ethos in Western societies, the US above all.

Actually, I would argue that there are two ways to deal with this. The two premises are that public opinion is driven by religion and that public opinion actually matters. Russell argues that we should attack the first premise; that we should sever the public’s attachment to religion and in doing so change their opinion to our own needs. Religion is, after all, deeply ingrained in not only our culture, but also our minds. Religious beliefs, which can even encompass a sort of reverence of nature such as that present in the Green movement, is not likely to go away.

I would argue that we should attack the second premise. It’s not that this tactic would be easier: the second premise – that public opinion matters – is at the core of democracy. But, I would argue that the outcomes of removing democracy would be much better than removing religion. Not only does removing democracy sever the effect of religion on politics, but is also severs the effects that other forms of public ignorance have on governance.

The fact of the matter is that the public is not infallible, and nor is it even likely to be more correct than any given expert in most situations. Unless human enhancement technology can see to it that the majority of the population is more intelligent, more informed or more rational than any given expert, then 51-99% of the population can easily be totally wrong. And yet in a democracy, the final say ultimately rests with that majority.

Under the politic view which I espouse – Technocracy (with a capital T) – the decision making should be left to those most informed and most reasonable, and therefore most competent to make decisions. It is wrong for the well-reasoned and well-informed arguments of an expert to be dismissed in favour of an Argumentum ad populum.

We know that public opinion is useless in determining how to engineer chemicals to suit our needs (because most people are not chemists), yet we accept without question the idea that public opinion should influence whether it would be a good idea. We know that public opinion is useless in determining the efficient ways to derive stem cells, but we trust the public to determine where those stem cells come from. We know that public opinion won’t find a way to dramatically increase the intelligence of our children, but that same public is trusted to decide if we should be doing that in the first place.

When it comes to making laws and managing countries, we should follow what we do when making drugs and managing cell cultures. We should seek answers from the sources that are most likely to get the information right. Ignore the public and trust the experts.


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