Ilkka Herlin: Science and responsibility

On a global scale, we are encountering such a variety of crises that the probability of large-scale disaster is shockingly high. All the while, we are dealing with disasters on a smaller scale, one of which, the coronavirus pandemic, we are living through right now.

Common to the past and future disasters of modern society is the fact that, without science, they would never have come to pass. Science stems from curiosity, the desire to solve problems and the faith of us modern people in our ability to control nature. However, this is an ability we do not actually possess.

Science is founded on acknowledging and identifying facts. Einstein is said to have noted that he preferred his equations to politics, since equations are for eternity, while politics is for the present. And yet, the pacifist Einstein ended up sharing his equations with society, with destructive consequences.

In 1914 the scientist Fritz Haber invited Albert Einstein to work as his colleague in Berlin. This pair of friends was composed of a German nationalist and a pacifist, both of whose efforts and discoveries have engendered wellbeing, but also immeasurable destruction.

The fate of scientific discoveries and innovations always lies in the hands of those who come later. This gives science and scientists a special responsibility. No longer can we rely on the old assumption according to which research results in progress and happiness. It can equally result in calamity.

A particular danger can be found in having the results of science also in the hands of denialists, those who deny facts. When denying research-based knowledge, such as the effects of humanity and technology on climate change, they can try to convince others that we can with a clear conscience further advance dangerous trends originating in science, such as the fossil economy.

Without science and scientific thinking, we will not survive the future trials we have brought upon ourselves. If nothing else before this, the coronavirus has finally demonstrated this. However, we are all required to act responsibly when conducting research and applying its results.

We have to be better at understanding the big picture. We have to understand what science is and what it is not, what it is capable of and what it is not yet capable of. Increasing understanding must also be a scientific process.

Science is like democracy. Deficient and not very good, but still the best system out of all the alternatives. Science and democracy have to support each other. This is why research, democracy, responsibility and the courage to strive for good things matter.

Ilkka Herlin, PhD

The author has worked as a scholar of Finnish history, the history of science and large-scale systems.