It's amazing how far science has gone to destroy life without being blamed. We live in the scientific age, and science's prestige has permitted it to spread far beyond the good it can do. The first shock was the atom bomb in 1945. Only people of that generation recall the deep horror that came with the first explosion of a weapon that foresaw the potential destruction of humankind itself. But in many ways the A-bomb is a bogeyman that has been successfully caged while an invisible virus has done far more harm.

That virus is the amorality of science. Science is unique in that we allow it to have no morality. Destruction and healing are on an equal footing. New weapons technologies are funded by the same government budget that funds new cancer research. Untested medical treatments and toxic drugs are allowed almost free rein to harm and kill patients in the name of helping them. If you doubt this, consider that surgeries are not monitored by any governmental regulation. Operations can become standard procedures with a minimum of testing. Among these are heart bypass surgery, balloon angioplasty, hysterectomies, and radical mastectomies. None went through double-blind testing. As a result, radical mastectomy was the procedure of choice for decades in this country, while at the same time lumpectomies, a far more benign procedure, provided the same survival rates in Europe. Current studies show that angioplasty, performed by the thousands every month on heart patients, is not effective in extending life span.

Science is an enormous outlet for creativity, but when that creativity turns diabolical, we can't keep allowing amorality to continue. Science has given us toxic pesticides and dubious genetic engineering of staple crops. High-yield fertilizers kill the soil; hormone-injected meats fill every supermarket. In the defense industry, ever more bizarre weapons of mechanized death have almost no oversight. Quite the contrary, eager technology buffs can't wait to test lasers in space, robot armies, and neutron bombs that kill all living things while leaving buildings intact (the rationale being that bricks and mortar are more worth saving than lives). Current armaments are designed to make sure that maximum damage is done to the flesh of anyone in their vicinity — hence the white phosphorus from Israeli bombs that fell on schoolchildren in Gaza and scorched their skin.

The amorality of science is sometimes indirect. For example, as we became a nation of pill-poppers and surgery junkies over the past fifty years, millions of people felt free to ignore the positive benefits of wellness and prevention. Didn't science promise the next miracle cure around the corner? As long as the doctor could fix us, we felt liberated to eat junk food, ignore exercise, and grow fatter than any population in history. In the last few months, studies have revealed that wellness isn't pie in the sky. People who practice prevention in terms of diet, exercise, and stress management actually alter their genes in a beneficial way and lower the activity of genes that trigger diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. So there was no free pass by not doing the right thing.

Because science is worshipped and scientists have grown used to an ethos of amorality, to protest against diabolical creativity makes you a target of irrational smears. It doesn't seem to bother the defenders of science-at-all-costs that they are acting out of the very irrationality that science is supposed to defeat.

Science deserves to be free, and ideas should never be enclosed in boundaries. No one is talking about the religious-based intolerance and anti-intellectualism that prompted the Bush administration to put a halt to funding of stem-cell research. But if we look at the problem without irrational attacks, we can have the benefits of science without the excessive dangers we now face. A new science that works to raise our humanity is possible, and in the face of an endangered planet and nightmarish weapons spreading everywhere, nothing is more critical.

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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