Science, we’re taught, can both improve and destroy our lives. Today, we hear a lot more about the destruction.
But science and its products, astronomer and popularizer of science Carl Sagan comments, aren’t inherently anything, good or bad: they’re morally neutral, ethically ambiguous, and, ultimately, necessary.
From the beginning of human history—prehistory, he speculates in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark—hovering beside science and technology there’s always been that specter of moral ambiguity. For our ancestors, the dangers of domesticating fire were likely as readily apparent as we see the potential catastrophes today of splitting the atom.
“This is an old indictment,” Sagan writes, quoting Greek playwright Eurpides (428 BCE)—
The mind of man—how far will it advance? Where will its daring impudence find limits?
It’s something an angsty protagonist might ponder in any modern movie or tv show.
But we are, as Sagan notes, a “technological species.” Humans don’t have the claws, warm pelts, saber-teeth, or echolocation natural selection granted our lucky animal friends. To survive, we needed to reason and create: that’s science and technology right there.
But the debate rages on circa 2009 CE, and thanks to selenium photoconductivity, it’s televised.
ABC’s FlashForward is a science fiction series that’s bringing on the science. But predictably, in “A561984,” the moral indictment tags along.
Brilliant (and possibly sociopathic) physicist Simon Campos is one of the central figures in episode 1.10, and he’s so convincing that I’ve almost completely forgotten that Dominic Monaghan was once a heroin-addicted hobbit trapped on a mysterious time-hopping island.
We were introduced to Campos some weeks ago, when he (surprisingly successfully) hit on a woman with his knowledge of quantum mechanics—and then proceeded to inform her that his flash forward had been a particularly enjoyable murder in which he choked the life out of some guy, and liked it.
Mad scientist much?
It doesn’t help to learn in “A561984” that—according to his more morally scrupulous colleague Lloyd Simcoe—experiments done by their research firm may have caused the blackouts, and all the consequent deaths.
“Simcoe and Campos killed more than all those men put together,” an enraged news commentator shouts (those men probably meaning Hitler, Stalin, and the like), “There’s a real case to be made here that they’re the worst mass murderers in history. Why aren’t they in jail?”
It’s the “daring impudence” argument all over again—Campos and Simcoe’s proton-driven plasma wakefield acceleration experiments (and that’s a very real, very current area of research, actually—remember the paranoia about the “doomsday machine” Large Hadron Collider a year ago?) may have led to the greatest catastrophe in human history. They’re evil. And more frighteningly—science is evil.
But it’s not science that’s morally ambiguous, Sagan writes—it’s people. Almost every realm of human activity is fraught with contradictions (not just science—“It is properly said that the Devil can ‘quote Scripture to his purposes,” he notes, calling this quality of contradiction in most human endeavors a “moral multiple personality disorder.”)
FlashForward makes this subtle point surprisingly well: after all, it’s not his technology we find disturbing, it’s Simon Campos himself (seriously—he’s giving Ben Linus a run for his money as the most sinister semi-villainous character on television).
And as much as Simon Campos is painted as the villain, when it comes to discovering the true cause of the blackouts (which probably weren’t his and Simcoe’s fault at all, popular opinion aside), he’s absolutely right:
“It’s called the scientific method,” he says. “It’s about collecting empirical evidence. Lloyd Simcoe tends to let his emotions run rampant—I don’t.”
Let’s ignore Simon’s flat affect for a moment—FlashForward is making a sophisticated point extremely relevant to the political and cultural climate today. Wars are being fought in Congress over stem-cell research, after all; and climate change hysteria is, ultimately, an anti-technology movement.
How we judge science—its positive and negative consequences alike—needs to be a rational, level-headed process. The public, like scientists themselves ideally are, need to be objective. In FlashForward, Lloyd Simcoe’s impassioned speech, that his research was responsible because he feels guilty for the loss of his wife, is completely sympathetic, but not even necessarily true. All he did was spark mass panic and discredit a potentially-valuable line of scientific research.
The way to avoid this—to make sure the public is knowledgeable enough about scientific research to make objective judgments—is to do like Carl Sagan and popularize science (mention Sagan’s name to a baby boomer and chances are they’ll respond, laughing, saying “billions and billions!”). On that count, ABC’s doing a good job.
FlashForward is bringing the arcane in science to general audiences—it’s an encouraging continuation of a trend I think it’s fair to say Lost began: reversing the dumbing-down of mainstream television. While Simon makes quantum mechanics thoroughly creepy, after all, Lloyd Simcoe manages to make it romantic:
“Have you heard of the Many Worlds interpretation?” he asks Olivia Benford, as they realize that they almost lived next door at college, almost met and so, maybe, even almost married. “Basically, it’s the idea that anything that could have happened in our past did happen, in some alternate universe. All those alternate decisions and choices you made are still playing themselves out on other worlds. If you buy the theory, I suppose in some other universe you did go to Harvard—and we did meet.”
A physicist on television who’s neither evil nor socially inept? Imagine that.