Arkady Grudzinsky


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Are scientists responsible for the consequences of their discoveries?

Edith Widder concluded her talk about finding the giant squid with a controversial remark: "Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth." This was said in a context that we know less about oceans than we know about space and that we need an organization comparable to NASA to study the oceans.

This sparked a lot of concerns like the one expressed by Peter Graham: "human experience tells us that when something of value is discovered, there are plenty of less well intentioned people who WILL exploit it for financial gain and couldn't care less about the future of humanity or of our planet so long as they make their fortune. That is also part of our human nature. I would be horrified to see a NASA-like organisation set up to explore the depths of the oceans, even though I fully support people like Dr. Edith Widder. Keep the "money sharks" away from our oceans."

I would argue that benefits to humanity brought by scientific research are not limited to "economic growth". We never know what knowledge and possibilities research would open. Someone may use the knowledge to create a weapon of mass destruction, someone may exploit the newly discovered natural resource, but someone may find a cure for cancer or find a solution for energy crisis. Should fear that someone will misuse the knowledge preclude a scientist from doing the research? Should scientists use discretion in choosing funding sources for the research?

Ethical issues are never simple. I don't expect an easy answer, but rather an exchange of ideas. Here are a couple of links to appreciate the complexity of the issue:

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    Mar 12 2013: Anything can be a weapon OR a tool. It is up to ME to choose how I will use that thing.
    • Mar 12 2013: That is a really insightful comment. What if you are using this tool or object for good and it yield negative consequences that were unforeseen? Would you still be responsible?
    • Mar 13 2013: I definitely agree. Even things created with good intentions can be used as weapons. Sarah, I believe if a scientist creates something for one purpose and it is later used for another unforeseen purpose, that is no longer the scientist's fault.
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    Mar 12 2013: Of course not. Vicarious responsibility does not exist. A scientist is someone who is trying to learn more about the world we live in. If someone in the future decides to use that discovery for evil, that is the future person's fault, not the scientist.

    Can you blame our fire-discovering ancestors for the burning of witches in Salem? No. Weapons don't kill people, people kill people.
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      Mar 12 2013: Generally, I would agree, except for the cases when the research is ordered for explicitly immoral purposes such as development of a gas chamber for mass killings.

      Once you mention the witches, perhaps, on the same note, you may agree that "religion does not cause harm, people do"? Best ideas in the world have been used to justify violence and atrocities.
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        Mar 12 2013: Great point.

        Religion is also a tool. An obsolete tool, in my opinion. It served as a "filler" explanation until better explanations are discovered. As our scientific ignorance recedes, so too does the need for superstition and religion. But back to the point, this tool can be used for better or for worse. It all depends on the person.
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          Mar 12 2013: In my opinion, religion is not a tool to explain physical world. It's a tool to drive our internal motivations and align motivations and cultural beliefs of people across societies and nations. Religious beliefs shape cultures. You may think, religion is obsolete in this role, but I would argue that in the absence of it, other beliefs and institutions of the same nature will inevitably form. E.g., I think, American belief in democracy, individual freedom, and human rights is a belief of the same nature - it holds a nation together, in the Soviet Union, communist party with its propaganda machine and mind control played the role of religion to get people think and act in unison. An ideological institution of this kind will always be needed in society. Throughout the history, rise and fall of ideologies accompanied rise and fall of nations, empires, and civilizations.

          I totally agree with Random Chance that religion is a great power along with science, we need to understand how both work and use them responsibly for good.
        • Mar 13 2013: I agree with both of you. It is the person using the tool who is responsible for the consequences, not the inventor or creator. However, I would really leave religion out of this discussion. While religion is responsible for the creation of ideas and beliefs, religion does not create things in the sense of physical inventions. However, it is as influential as physical inventions and like Arkady said, we need to understand its impact.
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        Mar 12 2013: In terms of creation myths and dogma, religions do attempt to explain the physical world. It just so happens that we now have the technology to prove them wrong.

        Believing in deities may never die out, but organized religion is a different story. Spirituality is becoming more and more abstract these days that many theists are believing in a "prime-mover" that initiated the universe but does not interact with us in any way. The reason for these "new-age" beliefs is the need for people to explain the beginning of our universe (physical reality).

        If you think religion is a "great power", then you should provide one tangible thing that a religious organization can accomplish that a secular organization cannot. Don't worry, I'll wait.
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          Mar 12 2013: This is a bit off-topic, but, hey, why can't I derail my own debate? :-)

          It is interesting that when Jonathan Haidt at the beginning of hist talk asked the audience, how many people consider themselves religious, there were very few responses. But when he asked how many people consider themselves "spiritual" in any sense or form, majority raised their hands.

          Although religious beliefs do affect how we view physical reality, I think, explaining physical reality is not the main goal of religion. Rather, it's shaping our attitude towards physical universe and each other. Religious beliefs (or similar to them) are needed to determine our role in the universe and society.

          You may enjoy this essay about religion and its role in human life by Leo Tolstoy.

          The style of this essay is superb. If you haven't read Tolstoy, you may appreciate why he is such an acclaimed author (and that's only an English translation). There are a few quotes that I'd like to paste here, but they are rather extensive.

          Re: "If you think religion is a "great power", then you should provide one tangible thing that a religious organization can accomplish that a secular organization cannot."

          Have you watched this talk?

          Alain de Botton, an atheist, has a few examples of things that religions give to humanity that secular organizations don't. He, actually, suggests that secular organizations should also provide these things, but, apparently, they do not. And if they can or will, I'd argue that they will have many attributes of a religious organization. So, why reinvent the wheel?
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          Mar 12 2013: Can't help it to paste a couple of quotes from Tolstoy's essay:
          "Moreover, every man who has ever, if only in childhood, felt the religious sentiment, knows from his own experience that such a sentiment has always been awakened in him, not by external, terrifying, material phenomena, but by an internal consciousness of his own frailty, solitude, and sinfulness, and connected not at all with any dread of the unknown forces of Nature. Hence man may, both by external observation and by personal experience, ascertain that religion is not the worship of deities, evoked by superstitions fear of unknown natural forces, and only proper to mankind at a certain period of their development, but something independent altogether of fear, or of a degree of culture, and not liable to destruction by any access of enlightenment; just as man's consciousness of his finality in the infinite universe, and of his sinfulness (i.e., his non-fulfilment of all he might and. ought to have done), always has existed and always will exist while man remains man."
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          Mar 12 2013: And: "But you may perhaps say that the invention of man's relation to the universe is a subject not for religion but for philosophy, or, in general, for science, allowing that the latter term is more inclusive. I do not think so. I hold, on the contrary, that the supposition that science in its widest sense, including philosophy, should concern itself with the relation of man to the universe is altogether erroneous and the chief source of disorder in the ideas of our .educated society as to religion, science, and morality. Science, including philosophy, cannot institute any comparison as to the relation of mankind to the infinite universe or to its source, if only because, before any sort of science or of philosophy could have been formulated, that conception of some sort of relationship of man to the universe, without which no kind of mental activity is possible, must have existed. As a man cannot by any kind of movement discover the direction in which he must move, but all movement is made imperatively in some given direction, so it is impossible, by the mental efforts of philosophy or of science, to discover the direction in which this effort should be made, but every mental effort is inevitably accomplished in some direction which has been already given it. And this direction for all mental effort is always indicated by religion. All philosophies known to us, from Plato to Schopenhauer, have followed inevitably the direction given by religion."
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        Mar 14 2013: Can you think of one tangible thing that a religious organization can accomplish that a secular organization cannot?
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          Mar 14 2013: So, you ignore what I said and repeat your question without comments as if it was never answered. If you believe it was not answered or you believe that I have misunderstood your question, you might want to explain what you mean or why do you think that I am not answering what you ask. That's what fanatics do - repeat same things over and over, verbatim, regardless of what others say. Do you expect a dialogue or just want to drive your point through my head like a nail?

          Anyway, I'll try again. Have you watched de Botton's video? I think, no secular organization can give you a purpose for your life, teach you how to live it and make you believe it. Do you know secular organizations that do that?
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          Mar 14 2013: Yes. I can. United States of America.
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        Mar 14 2013: I repeated my question because you did not answer it. I read all 3 of your replies, and you failed to answer the only question I asked of you. Only in your most recent response did you give me an answer: "no secular organization can give you a purpose for your life", to which I completely disagree. My life has been given purpose by the secular ideals of discovery and truth. I hold objective truth in higher regard than any happy lie or blissful ignorance.
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          Mar 14 2013: Which secular *organization* gave you these ideals, may I ask? You may not realize it, but I would claim that you may not give credit for your ideals to any secular organization or individual. Although you hold objective truth in highest regard, this ideal is not based on objective truth. It's an irrational belief, similar to a religious belief.

          Now, can you tell me, please, do you "hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal"? If so, to which category does this belief belong: objective truth, happy lie, or blissful ignorance? If objective truth, then what is the factual evidence for such belief? Do you think that the US nation would exist without this belief?

          How do you feel about reciting Pledge of Allegiance (with or without "under God") in public schools? What is it if not indoctrination? Is it not a ritual similar to reciting the Nicene creed and "Our Father" every week? What is a fundamental difference between a crowd reciting the Pledge in the same posture facing a symbol (flag) and a crowd reciting the Nicene creed facing a cross? Where, do you think, these "secular rituals" come from? Why is there a need for these rituals and irrational beliefs? Can a civilized nation exist without them?
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        Mar 15 2013: The public school system gave me those ideals. Learning about objective truth and the value of rational, critical thinking. My college years helped, but I was already the person I am now before I began college.

        Tell me, do you know what "objective" means? There is nothing irrational about believing truth is objective.

        Human rights are a human contruct. They only exist in our minds. You are attempting to confuse truth with morality.

        I feel very strongly about the Pledge of Allegiance. Did you know that the words "under god" were added to our pledge in the 1950's during the peak of anti-communist propaganda? Also, "in god we trust" was added to our currency in the 1950's as well. This is no ritual, it is a blatant and serious breach of the separation of church and state.

        I see no use for traditions. Actions that are helpful should be encouraged, while unhelpful or detrimental actions should be ceased.
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          Mar 15 2013: Re: "Tell me, do you know what "objective" means? There is nothing irrational about believing truth is objective."

          Objective means independent of our feelings or opinions. There is something called reality. Most people have an opinion that reality is independent of our opinions. That seems circular, doesn't it? Do you believe that circular logic is rational? Do you call it rational to believe that reality is real and independent of our beliefs? I have the same belief as you that reality is real and independent of my beliefs. It just doesn't seem like a rational belief to me. When you decide whether something is true or not, you are forming an opinion. So, how can you have a truth that is independent of your opinion?

          I have an irrational belief that my beliefs are irrational. I find this belief self-consistent. It does not require explanation or evidence. This belief gives me a lot of freedom. First of all, this implies that my beliefs are not any better (or worse) than anyone else's. I don't want other people believe what I believe. So, if you believe that your beliefs are rational and better than mine, I would ask you to provide evidence or a reason of why you believe that. On the other hand, I don't feel compelled to provide anyone with any proof or evidence, because I completely admit that there is none :-).

          Re: "Human rights are a human contruct. They only exist in our minds. You are attempting to confuse truth with morality." That's right. Human rights and moral values are not objective truth. They are also irrational beliefs. That's exactly what I meant. So, do you say that human rights and moral values don't concern you at all?
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          Mar 17 2013: Forget about "under God" and "In God we Trust". These things should not be on government symbols - I agree. That's not the point. What I mean is that even secular life has many traditions and rituals. E.g. celebration of the Independence day or the New Year, Inauguration ceremony, etc. Do you think that these traditions need to be abandoned?

          Re: "I see no use for traditions. Actions that are helpful should be encouraged, while unhelpful or detrimental actions should be ceased."

          Well, yes. Helpful actions should be encouraged until they become a habit and a tradition. That's how traditions form. Isn't that right? I think, for most of the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you can trace a certain practical reason. E.g. ban on sexual relations with parents and close relatives is, clearly, to eliminate in-breeding. Ban on sex during periods seems to promote procreation. There are sanitary rules on meat preparation, hygiene, etc. Religion seems to me a cultural way to enforce these "good habits" and spread them among population. Don't you think so? How do you spread uniform moral values among population if not by some form of "brainwashing" or propaganda? Mass-media didn't quite exist back then.
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    Mar 12 2013: I split all actions into three parts:
    And I think this question could be framed as : "Are men (with usually good intent and good means) responsible for the consequences?"
    I personally would say "No" they aren't responsible for the consequences, because it was an "unintended" consequence.
    I mean if I said "let there be peace and collaboration" and then suddenly mass war and terror happened across the world, in a literal sense it was my fault (because I was one of the many causes). But should I be held responsible if my means and intentions were good when I said that statement. I would have to say No.
    I mean this raises another debate if you are the cause of evil, should you be held responsible? (Even if it was an unintended consequence!)
    Hope this helps! :D
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      Mar 12 2013: Another framing of my question is "Should we refrain from saying or doing things if we anticipate that our words or results can be possibly misunderstood or misused?"
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        Mar 12 2013: I would say No, to that framing of the question. :)
        Because then not much progress would be made, if we always refrained from saying some grand and controversial idea, which "could" have great impact on the word, and do much good, but didn't because we were worried. Then nothing new would ever happen! (In my opinion that is). I mean almost all data can be misused or misunderstood, but does that refrain us from revealing certain data? This is a very interesting question.
        I mean action is better than no action (depending on the situation ; I mean sometimes no action is better.) But from my own experience saying an opinion usually has more constructive effects than de-constructive!
        But I feel that I am answering a question which is very different from the question you asked.
        I will have to think about this more later!
        Also pluralism demands that all opinions should be allowed and "respected" and we should be "tolerant" towards people's belief but this is different ot whether or not people should be allowed to voice opinions depending on the "consequences".
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          Mar 12 2013: There seems to be no general recipe. In some cases, like the study of the ocean, it does not make sense to let our fears stop the research. In other cases, it's best to refrain from saying and doing things. Whatever we do, we should exercise discretion and responsibility. E.g., I do believe that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of American democracy and that people should be free to express their political and religious views. But I don't think that saying derogatory things about other people's beliefs is a good idea. The only form of censorship that I support and, actually, advocate for, is self-censorship.
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    Mar 15 2013: It depends... Often one cannot know how knowledge will be used, but performing research with the aim of developing specific technologies can be clearer.

    Let's use, for example, an invention which is being pursued by Craig Ventor .. I believe he is working to create a form of algae which will generate oil as a byproduct of it's metabolism. I can see good and bad consequences of this - A potential bad consequence is feeding the acceleration of CO2 buildup in the atmosphere if current climate modeling is close to being correct. My guess is that he has thought of this and decided on balance he is doing the right thing and willing to risk making a mistake..If his product is ever developed and put into large scale use, and results in an overall negative, he will be considered partly responsible by many. But as someone else pointed out, intentions matter.. If he acted in good faith believing his invention will overall be beneficial, and it turns out it is not, we can't fault him. But if he is simply trading his knowledge for cash from oil companies, and hasn't put serious thought into consequences with something this obvious, then he would be at fault.
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      Mar 15 2013: I agree, intentions always matter when morality is concerned. Anticipating unintentional consequences of our actions is also important, though. This is the difficult part as it takes a lot of experience and wisdom.
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    Mar 15 2013: Interesting question indeed. However, responsibility and consequences are vexed subjects. Scientists are humans and science is profession for many; are humans in general responsible for the consequences of their actions? There is a practical limit of foreseeing the consequence of an action and many actions may seem unwise in hindsight now which were practically not foreseen in the past. Take Climate Change and the historical responsibility of carbon emission that the developing countries claim the developed countries should accept. Take hunting as a sport practiced once for another example. Ethics change over time so do priorities. Why scientists will be singled out for their discoveries particularly when they don't normally 'preach' to accept their discoveries?
  • Mar 12 2013: I think we should dare to take the risk, although a calculated risk. Without acting, no results will come out of it, and I see that as worse than having a negative or positive result.
    • Mar 13 2013: I agree with you in the fact that taking risks are necessary in terms of scientific exploration. Inaction is worse than negative or positive action; at least we can learn of the dangers of science and create means of prevention and even safer, innovative technologies from a discovery gone wrong.
    • Mar 13 2013: Sarah, do you think we should always take the risk or do you think there are instances when the risks are too large? I agree with the idea overall, that we need to take risks to move forward but there may be times when this just isn't practical.
      • Mar 13 2013: I say calculated risk for a reason. For example, I wouldn't want a group of individuals to carry out their experiment if it is known that there is a large chance of many people dying. Instead, we need to find ways in order to remove that risk, and then the experiment should be carried out, especially if that experiment carries many benefits. I wouldn't abandon ship on something if it has big risk. We should take the time and effort to reduce that risk.
      • Mar 13 2013: Money may be another issue. Do you think we should carry something out despite a potentially large cost for something that may or may not yield beneficial results?
      • Mar 13 2013: I think this is where scientists must further delve into opportunity costs and expected results as well as expected failure. In terms of money, I think it's important to spend money on the actual process of research rather than the experiment as to it's potential effectiveness before performing the actual experiment. If the money is spent usefully in research, this might lower the cost of an experiment in terms of failure.
        • Mar 14 2013: That's an interesting point Susan and I agree with you. An issue that arises is where this money comes from. I am not so sure that people will be willing to have their tax money go to something that isn't 100% sure to succeed, so even if the scientist takes the responsibility for their consequences, that doesn't solve the issue of what has happened. Do you think it even matters whether they take the responsibility? The consequences still happened; that's that. What do you think?
      • Mar 14 2013: I think that scientists being willing to own up to their failures and willingness to continue research in order to overcome their failures will matter in the grand scheme. We need to build trust between scientists, the government, and the general public in order to all collaborate cooperatively. This trust will encourage beneficiary funding as well as spending and with more spending, more effective research as well as experimentation can be performed. It is rarely 100% guaranteed for a experiment to yield expected results exactly, but with better research, we might be able to get closer getting what we want from an experiment. Either way, we must encourage research instead of halting it. There is a much bigger consequence than discovering knowledge that could be used badly, that consequence being that this knowledge is first discovered by someone else and used for bad.
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          Mar 14 2013: I agree, Susan, that we need to build such trust. It would be useful for the public to have a much better understanding of science so as not to be duped so often by false and misleading representations. It would be useful for scientists to understand the importance of such communication from their end. If scientists do not make this effort, someone else will propagate misleading stuff that serves science and the public poorly in the end.
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        Mar 14 2013: It seems to me that in some cases there is no choice to make a discovery or not to make it. Often, when a technology is ripe for a discovery, it will be made sooner or later. Sometimes, discoveries are made in parallel by independent researchers.

        Nuclear fusion research and the creation of a hydrogen bomb is a great example. Soviet Union and the U.S. conducted this research in parallel. Both sides knew that they are creating a weapon of unprecedented destructive power. Yet, neither side could afford to stop the research in fear that the other side would make the discovery first.

        I don't think that scientific progress can be deliberately stopped. It's beyond individual human power. When we talk about humanity at large or nations, statistical laws take over and decisions of an individual scientist do not matter. Things can only be changed through persuasion of large masses of people through a propaganda machine such as media or religion.
  • Mar 12 2013: Actually, yes.
    I believe strongly that all leaders and spokespeople for religion and for science,
    including those who make new scientific, medical and other kinds of discoveries, should
    be loudly and daily condemning, in the strongest of terms, the abusive misuse of their ideas, creations,
    and discoveries and for actively seeking to force those agencies and individuals who misuse and abuse them, to step forward, admit the truths and take responsibility in the form of accountability, even punishment for the horror that has been done.
    Most things that are truly powerful do not get to be used by the average citizen, so it is not up to them personally in how to use it, whatever it is.
    While it is true that over time there have been some benefits, religion and science have profusely abused the peoples of the world and the truth and repercussions of those atrocities are simply swept under the rug with the idea of progress. A progress that is a continuing, business-as-usual, juggernaut of destruction on people and the planet.

    This resistance via condemnation needs to be done until both sides finally give up and make right what they have done.
    That is possible to do and it is a perversion of life to continue on as though new and better discoveries can soothe the terrible heart break of the past.

    The truth is we keep repeating the past and no one seems to think this is important or possible to change.
    Certainly with beliefs that if one forgets the past they are condemned to repeat it. We never forget it so that we can repeat it. It is time for accountability of all, everyone, even those who do not create such things that have a double-edged use. And until that is not only admitted and stopped, then any new progressive creation is hollow and without real worth.
    But alas, that's what humans keep falling for: trinkets, beads and promises.
    If we don't have serious consequential accountability, we will have nothing.................................but pain.
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      Mar 12 2013: This is a great comment. I love many points: your recognition that religious ideas are as powerful as scientific ones; that it is equally important to prevent misuse of both; that you do not suggest to get rid of either, but rather be more responsible in using them; that we should condemn the misuse of the ideas, but not the ideas themselves.

      Perhaps, while condemning others, we should also watch our own motives and causes. This is a very important addition that I would like to make.
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    Mar 12 2013: Does everyone agree that "exploration drives innovation"? It seems like the simple answer. But it doesn't seem like the right answer.

    Perhaps "Process" drives innovation. The process of seeking a new way to define a phenomena, an idea, an art; the process of interpreting that spark of imagination that leads to a measurable and quantifiable outcome; and the process of adding a degree of analysis and control that gives that spark of innovation credibility.

    Process (i.e. discipline) can be one of the most productive and prolific drivers behind innovation.

    Edison spent years honing his process before his innovation was brought to light (no punn intended).

    Scientists, the most disciplined and process-oriented of us all, can't help but innovate.
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      Mar 12 2013: This is a very interesting point. A lot of people think that routine kills innovation and argue that structured school environment kills creativity. As you point out, often, discipline, method, and repeating things over and over can produce innovation.

      I believe, evolution needs two things to happen: certainty of repeating things in exact same way - cell multiplication, passing DNA over generations; and uncertainty of random mutations. You seem to the "certainty" part, exploration with unpredictable results seems to represent "uncertainty". Together, they make science and other things move forward.

      I would call to embrace the uncertainty and shun the fear that we may not like what we find or someone may use it in a way that we did not anticipate.
  • Mar 12 2013: If we look at Paul Ryan's reading list excluding crazy Ayn or Ann or however you spell it, we find man is evil, and corporations and patent law are problems in America today. If he read their books, I wonder how he missed these points. So is the wheel bad? Is fire bad? etc. Everything we do has problems. Some countries deal with it better than others. However, World History is not encouraging. I can't tell you anything encouraging. If you go live on a deserted island, someone will come visiting and mess it up. Keep the faith, and I hope you can keep evil people out, but I doubt it.
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      Mar 12 2013: I agree. Humans have great capacity to demonize things and each other. "Just say 'NO' to negativism" as I read on a wonderful bumper sticker last week. :-)
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    Mar 12 2013: the only consequence to a discovery is increased knowledge, and yes, they are responsible for that. that!s why they are remembered. they represent milestones in scientific progress.
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    Mar 12 2013: The logic and finality of mathematics, eliminates uncertainty; and that process of continuously eliminating more and more 'uncertainty' results in mutations ('innovations').

    Six Sigma is a great example of a rigid discipline that begets creative, innovative outcomes. And since "six sigma" is an unattainable state, one must continuously evolve, continuously explore, continuously explain what hasn't previously been explored in that effort to reach statistical perfection.

    Without the discipline to define the issue, is it possible to innovate? I'm not sure innovation can exist without discipline.
  • Mar 12 2013: To some extent,The scientists should be resposible for what they announced they have discovered.At least they have evidences to prove some of their discoveries.
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    Mar 12 2013: I agree with Peter Graham: He who pays the piper, calls the tune, to paraphrase.

    It's probably a close call and subject to relativism, but isn't morality in science better achieved by funding through the ballot-box/ the paying of taxes rather than by the purchasing of products? Is political bias the lesser evil than the biases endemic in commercial interests?

    I would argue that state funded research would have a tighter grip on morality and end-user well-being, than would commercial funding and its default towards shareholder interests.
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      Mar 12 2013: Well, NASA is a government agency. Yet, people seem to oppose creation of a similar agency for oceanic studies.

      People who pay for scientific research can call what is being researched, they cannot call the results. There is motivation for anything humans do, including scientific research. A scientist is always interested in a certain outcome. There is nothing wrong with bias as long as research is done according to certain rules.

      Scientific misconduct is a slightly different issue. My question is, whether a fear of unintended use of research results should prevent a scientist from doing the research. This seems like an argument defending ignorance.