Magazine article Newsweek International

A Conflict of Values; Many People Fiercely Oppose the Fruits of Technology and Science. Perhaps Religion Can Offer a Solution

Magazine article Newsweek International

A Conflict of Values; Many People Fiercely Oppose the Fruits of Technology and Science. Perhaps Religion Can Offer a Solution

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Masland

When George Ellis isn't dealing with subjects like "The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time," a book he co-wrote with physicist Steven Hawking, he's grappling with the really tough problems of our time--namely, the relation of ethics and religion to science. Ellis, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town and a Quaker, is coauthor of "On the Moral Nature of the Universe," with Nancy Murphy. Last month the Templeton Foundation awarded him $1.4 million for his writings on science and religion. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Tom Masland about how politics is currently affecting research and technology. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Is the clash between biotechnology and ethics inevitable?

ELLIS: Genetic engineering is a great opportunity which does involve some possible dangers that have to be dealt with carefully, but I find the opposition most unprincipled. When Zambia rejected U.S. genetically modified corn, some people used the words "poison food" --a straight lie, totally untrue. They also said the U.S. was testing out foods not used at home. That's also untrue. So I find the environmental absolutists quite unprincipled and definitely unscientific here. Are there other examples of opposition to technology that you consider unethical?

I also was involved in the Pebble Bed nuclear reactor, as part of the initial environmental-impact team. Again I find environmental absolutism a negative thing. I simply find it unbalanced when people talk about the dangers of nuclear waste--which doesn't actually damage you if you keep your distance--whereas coal-fired power stations pour a huge amount of filth into the atmosphere, a huge contribution to global warming. The opponents are focusing on one aspect and not looking at the overall picture.

Does religion offer a way to resolve controversies over scientific innovation?

Science can't provide values. The classic example is that any time some project comes up that promises to create employment, there's always associated damage, and almost always some environmental group rises to oppose it. What you have is a direct conflict of values. There is a tendency among many to, in effect, oppose job creation, when people are desperate for work. Where religion comes in is in choosing your values. Where science can do a bit is when there are competing values. …

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