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CAFÉ SCIENTIFIQUE wrap-up

Posted on Jan 23, 2009 by billsimmon in science, skepticism, vermont | 26 Comments

Last night’s Cafe Scientifique was fun. It was surprisingly well-attended too. Seats were hard to find as the presentation began. It’s great that a pure science topic can bring out so many folks on a cold January weeknight.

Dr. Dennis Clougherty gave a fascinating 30 minute talk on the history and current state of nanotechnology, invoking cool ideas like nanotube-constructed space elevators and cloaks of invisibility. Following the talk, the audience was invited to jot down some questions for the professor while everyone visited the bar and had a stretch.

Here’s where things got a little frustrating. Now, readers of this blog will know that A: I am a bleeding heart liberal, and B: I love Vermont a lot. Despite my left-leaning Vermont pride however, I am often annoyed by the fact that I cannot go to any sort of public gathering focused on science, technology or culture in this state without the discussion getting sidetracked or overtly hijacked by armchair activists with an agenda. (For another example of this, read my wrap-up of April’s ACLU panel discussion on Internet privacy.)

In this case, there were a number of questions that amounted to little more than knee-jerk technophobia. This line of discussion began with a gentleman asking, “if so many environmental problems are caused by technology, how can you expect technology to fix them?” Dr. Clougherty was not sure how to answer the question. The gentleman elaborated, saying that since the iron age, every advancement in technology has produced a more destructive effect on the environment. Dr. Clouherty was a bit flummoxed and basically rejected the premise, saying that as a technologist, he obviously believes in the power of technology to improve our lives. Other audience members followed up on the original question, restating the anti-technology concerns, though perhaps more eloquently.

As with the ACLU panel in April, I felt that a pro-technology voice was sorely lacking in the room. I wanted to raise my hand and play the role of techno-advocate, but I didn’t have a question for the professor, per se, and I did not want to appear to be grandstanding, so I kept my trap shut. I was left wishing that the presenters had done a better job of making what I thought were some pretty obvious and important points. As you might have guessed, I’m going to make them now.

Much of the anti-technology rhetoric surrounded the idea that new technologies should be studied more thoroughly and the consequences of them thought through before they result in harmful products or a degraded environment/gene pool. I can’t argue with the basic common sense of that. More information is never a bad thing, after all, and nanotechnology is still a young field and there’s a lot we still need to learn about how very small clusters of otherwise common atoms will affect people and things they come in contact with. Dr. Clougherty made the point that a sunscreen that includes nanoparticles of zinc-oxide deserves to be tested. Zinc-oxide may be a harmless compound in macro clumps, but at the nano (read: quantum) level, these materials behave quite differently and are plenty small enough to permeate skin pores and get inside us. Then what happens? Probably nothing bad, but we’re not really sure. The FDA isn’t forcing manufacturers of the sunscreen (or other nano-products that use nano-sized versions of otherwise safe compounds) to do any testing because zinc-oxide is a known ingredient. It’s nano-ness, if you will, doesn’t enter into the agency’s thinking.

Okay. we’re all on board with that, but the anti-technology rhetoric was clearly thicker than this common-sense point. Like the first questioner, there was a sense from these folks that we ought not be pursuing these lines of inquiry at all — that delving into things like nanotechnology would only result in a raped earth and massive genetic mutations while fat cat corporate types get rich off of all the horror.

This is an example of missing the forest for the trees. That there are potential downsides to a technology is not necessarily a reason to abandon it (nuclear weaponry notwithstanding), or even to overly regulate it. I remember seeing a study in college that was done by Bell Telephone or AT&T in the early days of telephony. They looked at potential consequences — both good and bad — of a wide ranging telephone network in the US. The report included negative consequences like a landscape blighted by telephone poles and wires and an increased isolationism resulting from people being able to communicate without being in the same room. The report was prescient. The negative consequences it cited came true. Still, I doubt anyone at the ECHO Center last night would have argued that humans would have been better off having never developed a widely connected phone network.

Complaints that technology has had a negative impact on the environment are too narrowly focused to be useful. Yes, burning fossil fuels promotes global warming and has lots of other negative environmental and health effects, but if humans had never developed fossil fuel-burning technology, we’d have run out of trees a hundred years ago. And speculating that life on earth would be better now in that event is a stretch. Burning fossil fuels has also gotten us to the moon and provided heat and electricity while lots of other positive advancements were made. In fact, the net positive results from acquiring fossil fuel-burning technology are literally incalculable. I don’t think its too much of a stretch to claim that fossil fuels (and the energy they provide) have (indirectly) been responsible for longer life spans in humans, a greatly advanced quality of life for most of us and at least two of the longest sustained peacetime global economic growth periods in human history.

Now the negative impact of all that fuel burning is catching up with us and we need to find other, cleaner solutions fast, but technological progress has in general still been… well, progressive.

In the final analysis neither unbounded techno-Utopian optimism nor knee-jerk technophobia are sensible outlooks. We need to honestly recognize the benefits of technology and move forward with cautious optimism — and a whole lot of wisdom — while exploring every single scientific/technological avenue possible, always with a realistic sense of the potential downsides of any new technology. And by and large, I think this is how non-military technological advances are achieved already.

Plus, we could get a freaking SPACE ELEVATOR. So sit down, Burlington liberati, and let the nice scientist enlighten us a bit.

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25 Comments

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  1. First, I have to say, yea! Finally, a story where it’s not conservatives that are being anti-science.

    Second, I wish I could have been there. I had a Physics class with Dr. Clougherty my sophomore year. He is brilliant.

  2. Anything that brings us closer to all the spiffy doodads George Jetson has is ok by me.

  3. The thing that gets my goat about a lot of Luddites is the buffet-style attitude you describe. They pick and choose which technologies are “good” (those they’ve assimilated into their lives) and which are “bad” (everybody else).

    I would not be alive right now without modern medical science. My immune system would have caused my organs to fail years ago if it wasn’t for the tests and medicines I need to keep it under control. Do I hate the evil that technology hath wrought? Hell yeah, but I still love the baby despite it’s dirty bathwater.

  4. On January 25, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Well said, Molly.

  5. Interesting post, Bill. As is often the case, people blame the tool instead of its user. A hammer can be used to build a house or smash windows; a laser can be used to create deadlier weapons, or to provide pain-free dentistry. Likewise, what residents of Burlington have spent thus far on the war in Iraq (about $49.3 million) could have provided 73,760 homes with renewable electricity for one year. (Sorry to get political on you, again.)

    I don’t object when people point out that technology advances faster than the ethical debate that surrounds its use. But I hate it when people fear the new and unknown simply because it’s new and unknown. Anyone who’s benefited from life-saving medicine knows better than to automatically bash the “evil” that technology can bring.

    Still, I can’t stand this aural fixation with cell phones. Hang up and drive, people!

  6. We at ECHO are delighted about the conversation that ensued. We host these events to share cutting edge information and cause a dialogue. It seems that the current issue is as much about how we engage each other as the topic a hand. Do you have suggestions on how we might establish a more fruitful system for dialogue in the future?

  7. On January 27, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Phelan,

    Thanks for commenting. No, I have no constructive criticism for ECHO — I actually think ECHO did a great job hosting the event and making it seem like a space that anyone could speak up in. My frustration is with the knee-jerk technophobic attitudes of some of the attendees. I do wish that Dr. Dougherty had confronted some of the speakers more directly, but I also recognize that was not his job as presenter.

    Anyway, don’t misunderstand my frustration with portions of Burlington’s populace as frustrations with ECHO. I love the whole idea and hope to attend more of these events in the future.

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