Unethical Science? No Way!

And the “gosh, ya think so?” prize for not exactly shocking headlines goes to… the BBC news website last week for its stunning revelation: “MoD Tests On Humans ‘Unethical’”. Well who would have thought? The you don’t say factor is even greater when you realise that it has only taken the Ministry of Defence about 60 years to come to this conclusion.

Last week the MoD released a report investigating the ethics of such activities as testing chemical weapons including nerve agents and unknown weapons captured from the enemy on British soldiers at Porton Down in the 1940s and 50s. The report suggests that those tests, as well as ones in which young volunteers had their genitals exposed to chemical weapons without their consent, were not ethical. Tricky business, this moral philosophy.

The report’s independent ethical assessor, Sir Ian Kennedy, suggested that we should not judge too harshly, though. After all, he pointed out, “The nation was facing a real threat and these trials were essential for national security in that context.” He went on to suggest that the world was a very different place back then. But I don’t think it is. A nation facing threats to national security justifying its unethical behaviour… sounds quite familiar, actually. But where did this all-justifying threat come from? Nazi Germany, of course. Or was it Communist Russia? Oh, hang on, it’s Muslim extremists, isn’t it? Me and my memory, eh?

The revelation that those in positions of power can often be tempted to (and usually do) use fear and threats to public safety to justify the most awful things is (like that MoD announcement) hardly an earth-shaker. But it is worth keeping in mind. Why? Because similar abuse is often just around the corner, being proposed in reaction to yet another “unique” threat. Good science still seems to be being used for very bad purposes. In China, a report asserted last week, political prisoners are being killed by authorities in order to harvest organs for transplants. Horrifying as that is, at least Britain is safe. Or is it?

It was revealed this week that Britain’s police DNA database (the biggest in the world) is “spiralling out of control” with private firms holding not only DNA samples from innocent people and victims of crime, but also details such as names, addresses and race. The potential for abuse is obvious, but made scarier by the fact that the Home Office has given permission for a study of the police DNA database to predict the ethnic origins and skin-colour of offenders. Does that make you a little uncomfortable? Perhaps not. But then, I’m sure squaddies volunteering for routine tests at Porton Down in the 50s were less paranoid than me too. Christians can be a moral conscience to a nation. But not if we are taken in by propaganda and endless justifications.

Of course sometimes it’s less scary than amusing. Last week, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers suggested that Paedophiles be implanted with chips so that they could be tracked by satellites. In Commentary that made me laugh even more than New Scientist’s headline: “Inflatable Space-Station Blows Itself Up”, The Register commented that current RFID chips like those in passports can only be read from a maximum of 30 metres and that satellites are actually “quite far away”. They also pointed out that his suggestion of using GPS technology would unfortunately not enable satellites to track a chipped pervert, but would help him find out where he was if he ever got a bit lost. Eye-opening journalism lives.

(first featured:Baptist Times, 18 July 2006)



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