Friday, 3 June 2011

The Scientist

 Is it lazy to wish to be a 'pure scientist'? To be neutral, aethical, transcending the human element in pursuit of some theoretical perfection?

The answer to the above question comes in two parts. The first is a warning: here I cite William James, who described a man addicted to laughing gas. Just before passing out, the man was overwhelmed by an epiphany which remained tantalisingly illusive. One night the man managed to write down what he believed to be the secret of the universe, and upon waking up was distressed to read 'the smell of petroleum prevails throughout'. This huge anticlimax was used by Betrand Russell as a powerful admonishment to science (and scientists) that it is also too easy to become somewhat self-obsessed (or at least obsessed with the idea of knowledge).

The second is the observation I became a scientist and an academic because it afforded me great intellectual freedom. The rules of science to me are easy - have an idea, develop a hypothesis, detach yourself from the outcome, prove or disprove the hypothesis (or anywhere in between), repeat [publish]. I think objectivity, and working towards a testable hypothesis are the fundamentals underpinning good science. In this context, whilst heeding (or trying to) the above warning, we believe we can make a difference. We do not seek to play God.

The problem here of course, is that very little science is that pure. Research into geoengineering cannot be decoupled from ethics, policy or governance and, within that framework, given the sheer scale (which regularly overwhelms me) consideration of the problem by a single actor cannot be anything other than a oblique approach.

'I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart'

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