Edward Snowden’s revelations about our government’s indiscriminate spying has rekindled the debate about research and ethics. Tom Leinster, a mathematician who teaches at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland challenges the opinions of some of his colleagues when they insist the work scientists do is separate from the everyday world and not subject to moral issues.
Leinster disagrees and thinks people who create systems that give governments the power to spy into every aspect of citizens’ lives have an obligation to consider the consequences of their inventions lest they create monsters beyond Mary Shelley’s dreams.
If ethics had kept pace with scientific inquiry would we have pursued certain technologies like germ warfare, poison gases, and the atomic bomb, I wonder.
Given what we imagined were the exigencies of the time, perhaps we would have. Still, I agree with Leinster. Scientists cannot pursue the unthinkable as if they lived in a vacuum. If the pursuit of knowledge is good in itself, the effect of that knowledge upon a society is equally worthy of their attention.
See below for: a) a sample of NSA’s oversight; b) a list of scientific research performed by the United States which were of dubious ethical standards.