Professor Sees Science, Research as Pure; the Way People Use It Creates Problems

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

Professor Sees Science, Research as Pure; the Way People Use It Creates Problems


Thomas Williams of North Central College in Naperville

Science is neither good nor evil. It's simply the pursuit of truth.

Morality enters when society attempts to apply science.

That's according to zoology professor Thomas Williams of North Central College in Naperville.

Williams recently discussed science and ethics in the era of cloning with Daily Herald staff writer Deborah Johnson. The following is an edited transcript of their talk.

Q. Why do you think the public had such a strong reaction to news that a sheep had been cloned?

A. I think people do not understand what science is. They don't understand the nature of scientific proof and because of that, most people can't discern between science and pseudo science, things like psychic network and crystals and all that new age sort of thing.

We're all afraid of what we don't know or understand, and it's quite clear science is very powerful and has the power to do some very destructive things.

In the '50s, they made an awful lot of these really horrible horror movies, mostly about awakening things due to nuclear testing. And at some point near the end when they conquered the monster or stopped the plague, some geeky-looking guy in a lab coat with fuzzy hair said, "You know, there are some things that man is not supposed to know."

And a lot of people, if they haven't actually said that, some place within them, feel that that in fact is true.

Q. So people are afraid of the unknown?

A. In some of the quality literature on this, "Brave New World," for instance, cloning technology was used to create specific classes of people used to carry out very specific jobs.

That's a very scary prospect. It's not like watching "Star Trek" and people having warp drives - that's probably impossible and it's not based on anything.

But this idea now, we're at the threshold. We already can genetically engineer organisms. We can put genes into organisms that haven't been there before. We can make bacteria start turning out human hormones, for instance.

You've heard of the human genome project? It's a project spread out over various university labs in the country where we're going to go through and sequence the entire human genome. The goal of it is to identify all the genes that make up a person.

Once we do that, we can begin to explore the creation of some pretty complex phenomena. We're beginning to find out that certain personality characteristics have a large genetic component.

So if you find out what genes are involved with producing very aggressive people, then conceivably you could clone a whole bunch of really aggressive people and use them to fight your wars.

Q. Does cloning present a moral or ethical dilemma for scientists?

A. Do I think there's an ethical concern if I clone a salamander? No, I don't.

But do I think there would be an ethical concern with cloning a human. Yes, I do.

But that isn't a scientist's concern. That's society's concern.

One thing people need to realize is that science is a process or a tool. Science is an amoral activity. It is just the truth. Truth isn't good or bad. It's just truth. It's search for truth in the physical universe.

Obviously, there are a lot of things that are important to people that aren't in the physical universe, and science can't consider that stuff.

The ideas of good and bad or right and wrong are not parts of the physical universe and therefore cannot be considered by the process of science.

Q. Do think scientists should establish a code of ethics?

A. Sure, because scientists are scientists; they aren't science.

And that's why if somebody comes to North Central College and wants to be a biology or chemistry major, we don't spend four years teaching them biology and chemistry. We also teach them history, and philosophy, and religion and literature, and all of these other things. …

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