It’s not rocket science, it’s a matter of conscience.
In September 1941 during WWII, two men met in Copenhagen ostensibly for a scientific symposium, but outside of it in the evenings and in a social context, they informally discussed the theoretical possibility of making a whole new type of bomb. They were the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Bohr was a Dane, whose country had already been occupied by the Germans, which Heisenberg was.
A young Heisenberg had been at one time Bohr’s star pupil and they still had a strong relationship. In the relatively new field of what was to be called nuclear physics, they were pioneering giants. They were both geniuses, in the original but now devalued sense of the word, rather than the more modern one applied to those gifted individuals who can do things like drop their trousers on stage and raise a nervous titter from the audience.
Bohr, even though still living in occupied Denmark, was discreetly working for the allies and Heisenberg was already heading up the German nuclear project. Most of the leading German scientists in that area, being Jewish, had fled the country for their lives. The very rarefied discussion in essence came down to not only the morality of developing such technology, but discussing Heisenberg’s suggestion that perhaps they should both agree to misdirect the research of their respective sides into blind alleys, ensuring a nuclear bomb would never be developed.
The popular story goes that there was no concrete agreement reached between them but Heisenberg subsequently directed the Nazi research to develop a nuclear bomb into sterile areas but Bohr after escaping from Denmark two years later, went on to contribute to the Manhattan project, which resulted in the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing thousands.
It would go on to become a celebrated story of science for the next five decades, a morality tale illustrative of the nobility of science and of course scientists. It had everything; science being incorruptible and above petty politics, men of high integrity struggling with their conscience, a good scientist and a dubious, perhaps morally blind one.
The bottom line legend became Heisenberg putting ethics before his country winning the war and Bohr who by implication couldn’t focus on anything other than seeing if the stuff predicted by the equations could really produce a city annihilating explosion, was blind to any human consequences.
It was a nice comfortable fairy tale which I never believed, since it emerged mainly from conversations Heisenberg had with an author of a book on the development of the bomb, who’d never talked to Bohr about his recollection of what became a famous meeting. While I admired Heisenberg’s work, I also knew he was ruthlessly ambitious and had elbowed aside a lot of people to get into the very highest echelons of science circles in Nazi Germany.
Everybody in that rarefied strata knew exactly what was going on below them and it seemed to me he was constructing that classic post-war “good” German mythos to cover his activities in enthusiastic service to the Nazi regime, but in this case at Bohr’s expense. In contrast, Bohr was a quiet man more inclined to think of the consequences of his work than Heisenberg ever would.
It wasn’t until 2002, forty years after his death, that a draft letter by Bohr to Heisenberg was published, in which he wrote about his recollection of the famous meeting being quite different from Heisenberg’s.
“Personally, I remember every word of our conversations, which took place on a background of extreme sorrow and tension for us here in Denmark. In particular, it made a strong impression both on Margrethe and me, and on everyone at the Institute that the two of you spoke to, that you and Weizsäcker expressed your definite conviction that Germany would win and that it was therefore quite foolish for us to maintain the hope of a different outcome of the war and to be reticent as regards all German offers of cooperation. I also remember quite clearly our conversation in my room at the Institute, where in vague terms you spoke in a manner that could only give me the firm impression that, under your leadership, everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons and that you said that there was no need to talk about details since you were completely familiar with them and had spent the past two years working more or less exclusively on such preparations. I listened to this without speaking since [a] great matter for mankind was at issue in which, despite our personal friendship, we had to be regarded as representatives of two sides engaged in mortal combat.”
In so many ways, that story is illustrative of the inordinate level of respect accorded to men of science by society. We seem prepared to swallow any old rubbish about their motivations because we think they not only live on a higher intellectual plain, but that automatically implies they’re somehow more truthful than the average person. That’s of course far from the case, but that false perception is the reason actors in white lab coats regularly appear on adverts assuring you whatever product they’re selling is scientifically tested.
Quite frankly, Heisenberg, despite his undoubted gifts, was a venial lying man, a little shit in modern parlance, quite happy to ride the career wave of Nazism by promising them a nuclear bomb but the reality was he was a chaotic project administrator and the blind alley he took their research down was totally consistent with his previous but faulty thinking about how a bomb could be constructed. If he’d had the managerial and scientific gifts of Oppenheimer, we’d have been in serious trouble.
The practise of science, like any activity that will have an effect on large numbers of people, cannot be divorced from responsibility nor exist outside any ethical considerations. Of course, it frequently has, but history has a way of catching up with people who think otherwise. Unfortunately by the time it does, it’s usually stacked up a lot of bodies. Junk science like Eugenics, Lysenkoism and most recently alarmist climate science, have all had that effect and it’s always on the most vulnerable members of our society.
I’m going to give you two facts and pose one rhetorical question.
When someone like a downed pilot has splashed into an arctic sea and is already in the death spiral down to terminal hypothermia, if you can fish them out in time they have a marginal but statistically better chance of surviving if you place them in a seating recovery position rather than lying prone.
That fact was determined by experimenting on human beings using ice-filled tanks of water. Dump them in, keep them there, freeze them to the very point of death and then try different recovery positions and procedures. The people were concentration camp victims and all the variations were tried on them. The few who survived that experiment went on to die of other experiments which were themselves the stuff of nightmares. At the end of the war, the voluminous documentation of such research was examined by allied medical personnel.
The question is – would you use the results of such research?
Leaving aside any discussion of the inhumanity of doctors who could do such terrible things to other human beings, let’s consider your two possible responses to that question.
You might decide yes, if only to make something good come out of the sufferings of the victims, especially as most of the horrible experiments conducted on them were junk science. At least, their cruel, pointless and agonising deaths would have some sort of meaning. They would be saving lives that otherwise would be lost.
In a sense though, would that decision be somehow laying the justification for the next outbreak of such research?
It’s okay for me to torture to death a few people because in the future their deaths will save a lot more lives. The valuable research will be used, no matter what future people think of how it was gained would run the rationale of the next lot of homicidal researchers. That actually was partially the rationale used by the Nazi doctors, even if they hadn’t considered their victims to be sub-human.
If you said no, never, you would be setting a decent principle that the ends never justify the means in medical research on human beings, but you’ll have to live with the knowledge that your decision means letting some people die who would otherwise have survived.
There is no nice answer to such a terrible dilemma because by the time it has to be addressed, we’ve already been dragged into a zone of total inhumanity by the actions of other people. You’re trying to operate with some humanity within a framework that has absolutely no morality, no compass, no guidelines. Everything is broken and out of joint, all the normal rules of common decency no longer apply.
The only way out is for the people asked to engage in such activities to realise the effects they will have on people and refuse to do them. Yes, they may pay a price for it, but that’s their particular aspect of the same moral dilemma, except further up the causality line. I, like a number of people I’ve met, refuse to work for certain types of organisation or on certain types of project, and we’re fortunate to have that choice.
A lot of the time though, it’s only when you’ve been sucked into the thick of it that you begin to realise that despite your best and most noble intentions, you’re involved in what is essentially a cruel or immoral business. At some point, your conscience will prick you and it’s what you do then that is the measure of you as a human being. Within the context of the climate alarmism issue, we have an example of someone reaching that point and making an ethical decision to do something.
The following text is part of the message included with the third release of the climategate emails by the leaker calling themselves Mr FOIA.
“The first glimpses I got behind the scenes did little to garner my trust in the state of climate science — on the contrary. I found myself in front of a choice that just might have a global impact.
Briefly put, when I had to balance the interests of my own safety, privacy\career of a few scientists, and the well-being of billions of people living in the coming several decades, the first two weren’t the decisive concern.
It was me or nobody, now or never. Combination of several rather improbable prerequisites just wouldn’t occur again for anyone else in the foreseeable future. The circus was about to arrive in Copenhagen. Later on it could be too late.”
It takes a certain type of conscience to take an all or nothing risk for no personal reward, especially when you’ve weighed the dire consequences to yourself if it doesn’t come off. However, the people with the guts to act contrary to all the social momentum of their peer group tend to be individuals who have the fortitude to handle the fallout better than most.
Such lonely acts of individual courage are rare, and normally people don’t get away with them without suffering some consequences.
There is a cynical attitude that shoddy, deceptive and even junk science is somehow an acceptable activity, a victimless crime, but it’s not – far from it. The public policies being put in place by governments acting on advice from scientific charlatans are actually hurting people, both in the developed and developing world.
They’re people like elderly pensioners and poor families, who in the face of soaring utility bills can no longer afford to heat their homes in winter – what has become known as the heat or eat segment of our society. Old fashioned winter cold kills just as well as a tank of icy water, except it’s a more lingering death. Another morality conundrum for you – which do you think is the more cruel?
They’re the people in the poorest parts of the developing world living without electricity, living in darkness, denied access to better crop varieties, suffering child mortality rates we last saw in the nineteenth century and dying of preventable diseases we eliminated more than a half century ago. If we could divert even a fraction of the trillions of dollars spent on saving the planet, we’d save millions of lives each year as well as lifting them out of abject poverty.
We are fortunate to have a number of courageous people of science who are prepared to speak out about the arrant dishonesty of alarmist climate science, and have consequently taken serious career and personal damage for doing so. They all have their own motivation but I suspect it’s often started off as taking offence at what they consider to be the deliberate perversion and prostitution of science for political ends. I appreciate that motivation, but what I’d say to them is that the moral case for the stand they’ve taken is even stronger.
For people inside science and especially inside climate science, who know what’s going on but are staying quiet, I’d say examine your conscience.
There is a very real cost to looking the other way, and it’s a very human one.
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