Learned ignorance

Graduation season has arrived, and commencement speakers everywhere are praising the virtues of education. I have often been a commencement speaker, but lately I have begun to wonder if knowledge should come with a warning label on it: “Caution: contents are volatile and may cause burns.”

The most obvious kind of dangerous knowledge is scientific knowledge. Now that we know how to split atoms, splice genes, clone life and swap parts, what shall we do with that knowledge? While most scientists recognize a clear boundary between pure and applied science, there are few border guards on duty. Should scientists police themselves? Should government step in? How much control should big business have over the research that it funds? Fearing censorship on one side and exploitation on the other, the scientific establishment has been slow to answer such questions. Meanwhile, we have ample evidence that dangerous knowledge can be hard to control.


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