Limits on research?

Should scientific research have any limitations placed on it?

[ 12/1/21 ]

As others have noted – what sort of limitations do you mean?

If you are talking about limits required to manage identified or suspected risk associated with particular experiments – then most certainly – those are absolutely required.

If you are talking about a blanket ban on any research under any set of conditions, then no.

And it does get really complex, because some types of research can produce tools of extraordinary power, and all tools need to be used responsibly.

We do not allow 5 year olds to drive cars on highways, as they are generally not equipped with experience sets to allow them to do so responsibly, with minimal risk to other users. Same applies to more powerful sets of technologies.

The more power there is in a tool, the greater the level of demonstrated experience and responsibility we normally require from those to whom we give access to such tools. And in all people, judgement is affected by stress, and mistakes happen. In warfare a significant fraction of people are always killed by “friendly fire” – as one example.

So there are certainly many avenues of research that have risk and promise that require levels of demonstrated responsibility. We must all be responsible for making such judgements (all levels).

Giving a psychopath a powerful tool to destroy others is, in a real sense, a deeper crime than the psychopath using that tool. And we have no shortage of powerful tools already present in society – two tons of metal traveling at 200km/hr can kill a lot of people (we call them cars) – but they can also save a lot of people, and used responsibly can do far more good than harm.

So science is like that – all levels. Every individual needs to be responsible for the likely long term outcomes of their actions, and all such assessments necessarily contain uncertainties – that is the nature of this existence we find ourselves in.

Nothing is ever quite as simple and easy as it seems.

And if people are generally of good will, then we can usually find and correct errors before too much damage is done.

And it is never a good idea to give a tool capable of killing a large set of individuals to someone who is committed to doing so – if we value our own lives, or the lives of anyone else, then the value of individual life must be extended universally if we desire any real form of security. That applies as much to science as to any other aspect of our social systems.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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