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Ethical principles to live by

If we are to discuss science, then I must be up front about ethics. Scientists look to governments or other dubious sources of funding for research money. Then the financier gets to claim ownership of newly discovered sources of power. Some scientists never even think of ethics; they can torture bunny rabbits for cosmetics development or produce more terrifying weapons such as drones. We learn early on that our employer will tell us what is right and wrong. Scientists develop electronic surveillance systems and now those financiers are watching our every move; they store a copy of every communication you and your friends make. And when concerns arise, who can we trust to discuss them?

Standard science ethics modules highlight historic or current ethical debates. Today I’m doing something different, listing for myself what principles I want to live by. The list is preliminary, open to revision, it is mine to shape for myself. If you don’t like my list, good, make your own list. Decide what ethical principles you want to base your important decisions on. Be clear for yourself on what standards of ethics you wish to live by. Then you will have some basis of comparison to share with others. (Hard to believe I have gone this long without trying this!)

Improvement is a motive and goal which scientists have always claimed. A better knowledge base, a simpler explanation, a more accurate estimate are all things we can gain by applying science. What I see as improvement can strongly conflict with another person’s idea of improvement. Some improvements I would like to see: I would like to see better treatment of animals, I would like to see large reduction in prisons populations, I would like to see children everywhere confident in their future. We all know there are mistakes made along the way. A government which is active in correcting its own mistakes would be a welcome improvement. And a scientific establishment which is engaged with the people and serves the community.

Patience will be required for all of us, as we delve into the uncertain future. You have shown great patience if you have read this far. Further patience with me may be required. As I hope for this, I need to show patience with friends and adversaries as well. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the practice of patience is not so easy. Technology is developing so rapidly that no one can guess what will be next. Since the millennium began our government has been clamoring for new wars continuously. We rarely spend time with our neighbors anymore. I need to adjust my attitude to allow patience for others and keep a spirit of fun about it all.

Understanding for scientists can be a slippery slope. Scientists are always trying to get a handle on things they don’t really understand. They try to explain these half understood ideas to others out of context. My textbook says we understand light very well. I do not see how this can be since it is based on Quantum Electrodynamics, which no one really understands and hardly any scientist believes to be entirely correct. There are lots of things we can say about light: it travels close to 300,000,000 meters per second, the range of colors are proportional to wavelength, light expresses features of waves and particles. The study of light is endlessly fascinating and could satisfy anyone’s need for mystery. This may be as close to true understanding as we ever achieve, but it is not complete.

Availability means to take the time to discuss with another person the things which may be troubling them. Are any of us short on things which are troubling? Do we have the time to discuss all of our neighbors’ problems? Maybe not. Modern life does not forbid availability but the hustle and bustle makes it less common. None of us has the energy to carry half the burden for everyone we know. What we can do is turn off the TV and refocus on the world around us. The lazy habit of modern life is to worry only about which problems we feel like dealing with. This leaves so much unfinished business around that no one can possibly handle it all. That is why being available to cooperate on things is an important goal.

Accompaniment is my attempt at deeper philosophic scholarship. (Remember I asked you to be patient with me.) This idea comes from Archbishop Romero of El Salvador who chose to practice leadership by participating. This will require us to suffer the destitution we observe; now who really wants to go first? In fact living in poverty may actually be more joyful and satisfying than wallowing in creature comforts. There requires even one more stretch. Accompaniment does not permit the actor to enjoy common vices or be misled.  Accompaniment is the long slow process of working ourselves loose from the mighty grasp of evil. Scientists may need alone time to do their tedious work but should not isolate themselves too much.

Reality attempts to offer perspective, but also asks a great deal of us. Imagination is a part of the real world. When I put my mind to it, though, I can separate my dreams from my real life. Reality follows rules of nature; I cannot levitate simply by pretending. People can’t really read minds like they show in the movies. It seems easy to predict what people are thinking, but let’s not fool ourselves. It is an art, like theater stage performance. Distorting reality generates astonishment and wonder. Then believing washes over us; we do not want to let go. Dogma leads to happy stagnation and there we smolder. I hope reality will work as the ladder out of that mire. Anything which can make reality clearer helps. Reality can be painful, like the current era of mass extinction of species due to human encroachment. This is another good reason to wake up and deal with those pesky problems which science uncovers.

Forgiveness becomes tricky because of the conflicting religious themes connected with it. For me it means that I should not waste much time on other peoples errors. I hope others can learn from their mistakes, but my job is to learn from my mistakes. Instead of punishing people so much, it may be more productive to clear away paths where folks can succeed. This does not mean allowing dangerous villains to keep attacking the way our government does. It is time for the right hand to see what the left is doing, say “Oops, let’s not do that again.” I had best stay in the real world and avoid harming others, so they will not need to forgive me more.

Remembrance is the most radical idea so far. As a child I often tried to hide my blunders and I still do not enjoy showing them to others. The important thing is to not forget where dangers lie, nor forget the harm others will inflict when it seems in their interest. It is advisable to remember who has been helpful as well as who harmed us and keep track of those trends. The best response is to remember who mislead us and stop following them, take a new path.

Change is what this is all about, the one true constant. The future is exciting; it is coming to your neighborhood today. We should have fun with it and find a way to better ourselves in the process. I hope to actively change habits by replacing bad ones with better ones. After the transition period, old vices lose their appeal. To be of service is a primary goal of change and a reason for it. Make life meaningful and worthwhile if you can, it is a reason to live.

I did not invent any of this; their are  just things I’ve grabbed onto along the way. From this foundation we can construct a more solid discussion of science. I do not entirely know what is to come, but, I hope to report on more current events in science in upcoming articles. I’m going to review the LIGO gravity wave detector at Hanford next month. The world is changing; we are all in this together; let’s get ready for it.


Russ Frizzell is an activist living in Olympia since 2010 and a graduate of The Evergreen State College where he studied Physics and Cosmology.


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