Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


It is not entirely clear whether Isaac Newton would have ever shared his development of the calculus if he had not been provoked by hearing that Leibniz was publishing his work on the same topic. Newton's brilliance might have never made a difference in the world if his pride and need to show off had not overcome his terrible tendancy to keep his best work to himself just to have an advantage that only he knew about.

We have a similar problem today. ITT, a developer of powerful night-vision and other vision advantage technology has just been fined one hundred million dollars for allowing specifications for components of their technology to be shared with companies outside the U.S. including China. The problem is that such specifications are the heart of U.S. military advantage due to advanced technology. We do have laws that prohibit sharing scientific and technological development that gives us an edge. Of course, everyone knows that without sharing and open discussion, science and technology are slowed down or even stifled entirely condemning future generations to lack advantages that they will never know they could of had. Oh well, I guess if they never know what they are missing, they can't complain.

My disappointment is the fact that I can't argue against our laws that prohibit free exchange of ideas. The fact is, humans are dangerous. Our security depends on our maintaining a technological advantage. Competition is simply a fact of life. We compete as individuals and we choose groups to belong to with whom we cooperate in order to compete with other groups. Competition has been viewed as an evil problem by some. My father used to push for banning competition for grades and other recognition in school, believing that such competition held back those that were not performing well. Sometimes I try to imagine what life would be like with world-wide cooperation on everything rather than competition. Then, I realize, there wouldn't be any humans (or other life for that matter) in such a world. Competition seems to provide the motivation for the pursuit of excellence and the limited cooperation we do enjoy. For now, I'll simply have to settle for seeking out groups for cooperation that will benefit from my input and together we will reach for that next step up in science and technology.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Rules of Engagement

I recently read an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that was quite thought provoking. It was about the political debate between those against use of embryonic stem cells for research and those for it. In a larger sense it was about the poor methods we all use to communicate our arguments. We seem to shamelessly ignore the facts that don't support our position and deny that any other position has any validity at all. Of course, not everyone is completely guilty of this, but almost everything we see in the media is of this nature. We need to honestly assess why we think the way we do and communicate clearly what has lead us to argue our position. We also need to listen (which will take a good deal of discipline and some waiting for the opposite point of view to be expressed in a clear thoughtful way) to the opposite point of view and get a clear understanding of where the difference of opinion lies. We must avoid grand arguments that dismiss everything "other" out of hand and stop ignoring facts that don't fit our point of view. More than likely, we know of facts that don't fit the opponents point of view and we know them well, but we pretend not to notice facts that don't support ours. If this is the case, then we don't just suddenly agree that our opponent is right, but we should be open to adjusting our own view.

The worst problem I see in debates involving science is simply use of facts that aren't. I see all of the time references to sweeping generalizations that just don't apply to the situation at all simply because it is easier to think and get others to think without the effort to really understand what we are thinking about. Intellectual honesty requires that we question ourselves as well as others. That will still lead to disagreements that cannot be resolved, but at least we should be able to see the real basis for disagreement rather than the nonsense that gets printed in the media.

For an example of what I'm talking about, the Journal article showed that facts that everyone knows on both sides of the issue of embryonic stem cell research are simply not true. Such factoids as "there is a ban on federal funding for any stem cell research" or "abortions are being performed just for science".