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Jewish World Review June 28, 2002 / 18 Tamuz, 5762

Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney
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Science: the first resort | We've got such a good thing going for ourselves here on Earth, it would be too bad if future generations missed out on it, but things don't look good. Biological and nuclear warfare, global warming, the AIDS pandemic-even smaller disasters like the fires out West are ominous.

There's no doubt the world is endangered and no doubt that the future of civilization rests on the work that science can do to save it. It's only fairly recently, within the last 100 years, that human beings have understood the importance of science. Before that, they were impressed by scientific discoveries but unaware of the significance of science in their lives.

The existence of humans is brand new given the millions of years the earth has existed. Other life forms that once dominated the planet, like the dinosaurs, have disappeared. We think of ourselves as permanent but there's no written guarantee. There are threats to human life on Earth that could end this whole ballgame.

There are three basic areas in which science can work for our benefit. Astronomy is crucial. We've got to keep studying the universe so the earth doesn't end up getting too hot or too cold to support life.

Second, science has to keep plugging away on health issues and finding cures and preventive measures against things like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and AIDS.

The third area in which we need immediate help from science is with our environment. There's a war going on between business and science in this area. If we're going to survive, we have to concede the power of deciding what to do to science, not industry. Scientists look for solid data; industry is guessing.

If we admit that it is our best hope, the next question is how to use science. Right there you have a problem because as soon as you say "use science," there's trouble. Science, at its best, isn't used. Scientists should go off on their own and poke around in their labs until they find something. Pure science isn't trying to save the world or make anything useful; it's just being scientific.

We've tried to use science by having government direct scientific study toward improving life for humans. Things seldom work out when government gets involved and tries to direct science to solve a specific problem. The first thing a government agency does is lay out a set of standards by which a department will work. Science doesn't work within a set of standards. Discovery is outside the boundaries of standards and, if you force scientists to work within boundaries, they seldom make discoveries.

When government gets its hands on science, it wants practical results. This practice can attract an inferior group of scientists and, first thing you know, government has science making weapons.

The other problem with science and government is that, inevitably, the scientists are subservient to the politicians. The interests of the two groups are different, and if politicians' interests are forced on scientists, that doesn't work, either.

Scientists ought to be given the money they need and left in a corner by themselves to work without interference or direction from anyone. They should not be given an agenda they're expected to follow. Given a free hand, scientists will usually do the right thing.

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© 2002, TMS