A Universal Declaration of Human Technological Aims & Responsibilities?
by V.L. Welch, DPhil,
(Editor: The Greatest Minds.Org)
One of my favourite documents of all time is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights, 1948. Admittedly, this is an odd choice. It’s not witty or poetic or beautiful, is not evocative or haunting or lyrical. It is not even particularly memorable in the sense that you can read it many times without finding yourself able to quote passages from memory. It is not any of these things, yet it is still utterly magnificent. It is magnificent because of the world it aspires to create. It is magnificent because of the unequivocal clarity of the rules it sets out and, above all, it is magnificent because of the fundamental good purpose behind its every line. For such an important work it is also relatively short and concise; it has no need to repeat and reiterate its main points because they were crystal-clear the first time they were articulated. In all ways, it is a work of genius and, like other works of genius, it paved the way for similar subsequent efforts in the years that followed, things like the European Convention on Human Rights 1950- documents, that try, little by little to make humanity, humanitarian, to make the world a better place and to stamp out the worst types of vileness mankind has so far invented and inflicted on his fellow man.
Almost all works of literature asking human beings to treat each other better, to respect each other’s dignity and value one another are attributed to God, under one name or another. But the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is different. It is one of the first attempts to force human beings the world over to act “like human beings” not because some God says so, but for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do.
In the nearly 70 years since the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world landscape has changed beyond recognition both metaphorically and physically; our society is now faced challenges that could not have been imagined at that time, whilst many problems from that era are fortunately part of history, rather than modern reality. More literally, the landscape has changed just a seismically due to great technological progress and dramatic industrialisation. Vast tracts of rainforest have been destroyed using the very machines that were supposed to make the world and our labours on it easier, new technologies such as plastics and nylon fibres now choke what was then a comparatively pristine ocean and nuclear and chemical waste spoil areas that were then prime farmland or bucolic meadows.
None of this is news. To anyone alive after the 1980s, the environmental consequences of industrialisation are familiar to the point of tedious. Vigorous activism by pressure groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth –even companies, like The Body Shop, has made these problems glaringly obvious to the entire western world. The UN has written and ratified various treaties on climate and environment: there have been attempts to do something- poorly realised and flawed attempts, perhaps, but efforts in the right direction. To date, though there seems not to have been an effort to outline the rights and responsibilities of science on a societal level. There is no true mission statement for our forays into understanding the universe, let alone any attempts we make to reshape it, as and when our technology allows such a thing. There are restrictions on individual scientists- protocols on the ethics of trials on humans and on animals: the Helsinki Protocol of 1985 (amended and expanded repeatedly thereafter) springs to mind. But more fundamental than all of that is a mission statement of the purpose of our enquiries, the sociology and agenda of science. How should science progress? Which agendas should it pursue? What is an appropriate or responsible method to handle progress? Can such a thing be turned into a succinct mission statement? Who should write such a document and what jurisdiction would they need to enforce it? There are untold scores of ways to address this problem- below is one list of just 12 points-
A 12-point Manifesto
for Ethical Scientific Progress-
•Science and the scientific method have dragged us (often kicking and screaming) out of the dark ages, bringing power, clean water and light to our homes, mass transport to our lands, seas and skies and medicines and lifesaving surgical techniques to our hospitals,
•Scientific and technological innovations are the keys to a better future for “all sentient beings” – (in the word of Isaac Asimov, ““If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them”),
•The world currently undervalues both science and technology; not to mention creativity, sincere and philanthropic intelligence/effort and even sheer hard work, more generally.
•Like all power, scientific and technological capabilities must be wielded thoughtfully, judiciously and with ethical concerns – the benefit of all “sentience beings” foremost. There are already too many examples of this being overlooked. It is additionally important to take a long term view, as well as a short term one. [The current democratic electoral system, despite its manifold benefits, tends to prioritise short-term gains over longer-term objectives. The scientific and humanitarian progress tend to be long-term or even very long-term concerns, meaning that there is an inevitable political dimension to both. Because of short-termist politics, ironically, scientific and philanthropic processes are not always best served by our current democratic electoral system. Consequently, it is necessary to factor these restrictions into scientific policy and to endeavour to create long-term stability and conditions optimised for progress, despite short-term volatility.]
•Our aim should always be married to empathy and compassionate understanding of their consequences.
•The citizenry of any society potentially offers an invaluable “check” on the ethics and direction of scientific and technological progress, But, in order to fulfil such a role, they must be accurately informed and trained to think critically in the face of competing advocacy groups.
•Much contemporary science popularisation and journalism is concerned with “the wow factor”, rather than the “how factor” and the “what happens if we… factor?” This does not fully represent scientific activities, their consequences or their importance. In the long term, this kind of imbalance needs to be redressed, because an intelligent, well-informed citizenry can only evaluate the social consequences of science if they have the tools to do so. Foremost among those tools is an appreciation of the creative process as it applies to science and the various methods of assessing the impact of different decisions. A major factor in this culture of scientific reportage is historic – the fact that television and journalism have long been the preserves of artists and writers, rather than scientists and that many of those people for a long time felt the public needed to be persuaded that science was actually interesting.
•No one is to blame for the status quo, but it needs to change.
•There are those who examine history to avoid making mistakes of the past. They seek to learn from the decisions and mental processes of past rulers and regimes and to apply them to the modern world. The same benefits can be obtained by studying the creative processes, lives and puzzles of past scientists. The answer always lies in the data, but ideas about how to find it can be unearthed by examining the thought processes of the great minds of the past.
•The universe is an amazing place – quite literally “incredible” and the sciences give us a chance to explore its very substance and nature. Whatever path our individual lives take – as scientists or citizens working in other fields – science and technological progress will impact upon them.
•The importance of an informed citizenry is self-evident. This is not just about producing “the scientists and engineers of the future”, it is about allowing all people to savour the most profound discoveries and insights about the universe and life itself. This means sharing the thought processes and logic that drove such discoveries and it permits more people to savour the joys of discovery and the inspiration such knowledge brings as assuredly as they share the responsibility for using it wisely, compassionately and ethically.
•Above all, the great minds of science, art, music, literature and humanitarianism are wonderful sources of inspiration and their works and discoveries are things of joy in and of themselves; worthy of study because of their value but also simply because they exist.
There is an inevitable interface and power-dynamic between power, politics and science (which, in itself is another kind of power) and another between the world’s citizens and the science and technology of their societies. At times, the conflict of interest between these parties has been abundantly clear- the revolt of the Luddites against the first wool-spinning machines in 1811 to 1815, is one clear example. Today, such conflict can be more complex and less overt, but as physicists learn ever more about the fundamentals of the universe- sub atomic particles, quantum entanglement, super-cooled fluids, anti-matter and even time, itself- and biologists learn to read and re-write the genes of all living things, there has never been a greater need for the people of this planet to understand science and complete, unflinching and intellectually deep discussion about its consequences, priorities and its ethics is long overdue. The 12 points above might not be exhaustive; for now, they are only a first draft- the thought of just one human among the billions drawing air upon our planet as you read these words. They are imperfect, but everything must start somehow. The great minds of the future can only shape our world and our destiny if we, the people of the world today, ensure there remains a planet for them to study tomorrow. It is a responsibility that is as fascinating as it is important and it affects every last citizen here today. This kind of speculation might be a million miles away from the succinct and polished genius of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but, again, everything has to start somewhere. A Universal Declaration of Human Technological Aims and Responsibilities is, by now, long overdue.
5th July 2017.
on The GreatestMinds.Org, © Linden-Lime Publishing, Truro, 2017.
The moral right of Dr V L Welch to be acknowledged as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
International copyright laws are applicable.
in "Marie Curie & The Ibexes: Top Popular Science Writing from The Greatest Minds.Org", Ed: V.L. Welch, Pub: [FORTHCOMING] Linden Lime Publishing (for The Greatest Minds Ltd), 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9565785-2-5
Thanks to N. Intrater and B. A. McCreight for helpful comments on the manuscript
“A Universal Declaration of Human Technological Aims and Responsibilities?”,
by V.L. Welch, Pub: The Greatest Minds.Org, 5th July 2017,
(© Linden-Lime Publishing, July 2017) ... or similiar...