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I Agree That Magic Is The Real Villian

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Posted by Paul R. Martin on July 11, 2002 16:04:14 UTC

Hi Mike,

I'm glad you liked my example; so do I. I forgot to mention another significant consequence of Haber's breakthrough. It is the single biggest contributor of pollutants to our environment. Nitrogen compounds, which were originally formed from nitrogen atoms taken from the air in Haber's process, show up in smog, the ozone holes, the oceans and estuaries, and virtually everywhere the chemical ecological balance is being upset.

***What I was worried about is raw mental power more than the careful, cautious habits of science. While scientists care about creating value, someone else is taking short cuts with the power which a scientist created with a lifetime of painstaking work and not taking those shortcuts.***

I think that is exactly what we should worry about. I think the "someone else" are the magicians you mentioned. But who are they exactly? They are typically not the scientists, although Fritz Haber personally took charge of implementing the use of chlorine gas in WWI, and in this case he was the magician.

But typically, the power in this pasture of cows is wielded by Kings, dicators, generals, presidents, and now CEOs. You can't really blame them because their job is to get as much out of the pasture we are grazing in as the current technology allows. Their objectives are relatively short sighted and only involve securing and feeding themselves and their charges in the near term.

So who should look out for the long term consequences? These power leaders can't or they will lose their power to someone who doesn't care about those consequences. The "people" can't, for two reasons: they don't know what those consequences are, and they don't have the power do do anything about it anyway.

The only hope, as I see it, is a three way interaction. First, the scientists are the only ones in a position to assess the long term consequences of what they discover so they must bear the burden of figuring that out. Second, they must be completely open and energetically work to educate the public as to the possibilities and inevitabilities of their discoveries. Third, the public must somehow exert influence on those who hold power to institute policy in an attempt to minimize long term harm while still taking advantage of the benefits.

As the political power picture changes over time, I am encouraged that step three continues to move in a positive direction. I am also pleased with the degree to which step two has been accomplished by scientists. The piece that I see needs considerable work is step one. I think the funding mechanism for science is driven too much by those who wield power and there is no mechanism to fund the kind of research into the long term consequences of various scenarios to the degree it is required.

Warm regards,

Paul

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