One of the most recognizable tropes of speculative fiction is the misguided scientist creating or applying some technology that runs amok. From classic 1950’s sci-fi movies like Forbidden Planet to just about every episode of Fringe, the message is that well-intentioned science can easily become misapplied and a danger to others. But is there any truth to the trope? Will we ever see a real Jurassic Park?
As a fan and author of speculative fiction, I like to keep abreast of scientific developments and their future implications. One thing that seems quite clear is that science, for the most part, is much more public than what entertainment would lead you to believe. With a perpetual shortage of funding for science, researchers are motivated to have their work published and peer-reviewed. The more you are published and accepted, the more likely you will be able to receive and maintain funding. This provides a great check and balance system tying funding with openness, awareness, and approval.
On the other hand, science and communication has progressed to a point where those not in the scientific community can achieve some pretty notable “successes” that can cause one to worry. In 1994, a 17 year-old was discovered trying to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard using radioactive materials found in smoke detectors as fuel. A few years later author Tom Clancy wrote the Jack Ryan novel Sum of All Fears in part to demonstrate how easy it was for anyone to learn how to build a nuclear weapon. And today a clandestine war is apparently being waged against Iran by parties unknown to keep them from developing nuclear capabilities without international oversight. These unchecked science worries are real and will undoubtedly be repeated.
Another concern is science receiving financing from non-conventional sources, effectively bypassing the publish/ peer-review/ funding system of checks and balances. Gizmag recently reported an effort by a company called Oxitec to rid the world of disease-bearing mosquitoes through genetic manipulation. In a nutshell, their scientists have isolated a gene that keeps female mosquitoes from developing wings. Since grounded mosquitoes can’t mate, this mutation quickly leads to a population die-off. Laboratory tests have shown this to be extremely effective, but questions remain on whether we should seek to purposefully eradicate a species.
Now, I hate mosquitoes, but how will a mosquito die-off affect the food chain? What other insects would fill the ecological niche left vacant and would they be worse? Those types of questions need to be explored and answered before such a drastic action such as extinction takes place. Unfortunately, Oxitec reportedly is so convinced of its merits that it has skipped most scientific debate and has already contracted with several nations. Genetically engineered mosquitoes have already been released in Grand Cayman (leading to an 80% drop in local mosquito populations) and Oxitec is in process of doing the same in Malaysia and Brazil. The world is now the laboratory whether we like it or not.
Can science be the villain? No. Science is a tool. A hammer can build a home or it can bludgeon someone to death. This computer I’m typing on is a tool. So is the one you’re using to read my words. But just like a hammer, it can be used either to help or to harm. We all use science, we all apply science, we are all – in a sense – scientists. Every tool should be used in conjunction with these questions: “Will this help or harm?” and “Is it possible my ‘help’ can become ‘harm’?” It’s the reasoning while using the tool that leads to heroic help or villainous hurt.
Sometimes it seems like the misguided use of science is a worn out cliche in speculative fiction. In some sense that is true. The lone, deranged researcher who locks himself away hoping his scientific breakthrough will heal his source of emotional pain has been over done. Yet it appears we still need a constant reminder of our own place of responsibility. Maybe we need more stories about the every day unintentional misuse of science. We don’t really relate to the mad scientist, but what about a villain who is just someone texting while driving? Or what about the facebook antagonist who ruins a person’s reputation and life with half-truths and gossip in the name of humor or shock value?
Is science the villain? No. But we easily could be.