Monday, July 19, 1999

Scientists' Responsibility for Society

In the earliest part of his 1963 John Danz Lecture at the University of Washington (Seattle), the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman talked about the good and evil aspects of a consequence of science [1]. However, he did not talk further about the scientists' responsibility for relations between society and science, saying that these were far more humanitarian problems rather than scientific problems. The reason for Feynman's "actively irresponsible" attitude towards social problems was also given by himself to be the thinking that being responsible for those problems was an ineffective use of his time [2].

On the contrary, Carl Sagan, a gifted astrophysicist and recipient of the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, U. S. A., was a pioneer in understanding the global consequences of nuclear war, and had the opinion that it was the particular task of scientists to alert the public to possible dangers of the application of science [3]. His argument can be summarized as follows: The effects of today's technology is so big that these can cause the destruction of the global civilization and even the annihilation of our species. Therefore, the price of moral ambiguity and the ethical responsibility of scientists are too high.

Comparing these different attitudes of the famous scientists, I would like to conclude: The "active irresponsibility" is the privilege only no-ordinary geniuses can enjoy. There are many Feynman fans in the world over. Though I am one of those fans, I fear that his attitude might give so many ordinary scientists an excuse for being irresponsible for the use of science.
  1. R. P. Feynman, "The Meaning of It All" (Addison-Wesley, 1998).
  2. C. Sykes, ed., "No Ordinary Genius" (W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).
  3. Carl Sagan, "The Demon Haunted World" (Random House, New York, 1996).
Read essays related to Richard Feynman: "What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?"

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