A brief history of ethically concerned scientists

by Kaj_Sotala13 min read9th Feb 2013150 comments


HistoryInformation HazardsPractice & Philosophy of ScienceHistory of Rationality
For the first time in history, it has become possible for a limited group of a few thousand people to threaten the absolute destruction of millions.

-- Norbert Wiener (1956), Moral Reflections of a Mathematician.

Today, the general attitude towards scientific discovery is that scientists are not themselves responsible for how their work is used. For someone who is interested in science for its own sake, or even for someone who mostly considers research to be a way to pay the bills, this is a tempting attitude. It would be easy to only focus on one’s work, and leave it up to others to decide what to do with it.

But this is not necessarily the attitude that we should encourage. As technology becomes more powerful, it also becomes more dangerous. Throughout history, many scientists and inventors have recognized this, and taken different kinds of action to help ensure that their work will have beneficial consequences. Here are some of them.

This post is not arguing that any specific approach for taking responsibility for one's actions is the correct one. Some researchers hid their work, others refocused on other fields, still others began active campaigns to change the way their work was being used. It is up to the reader to decide which of these approaches were successful and worth emulating, and which ones were not.

Pre-industrial inventors

… I do not publish nor divulge [methods of building submarines] by reason of the evil nature of men who would use them as means of destruction at the bottom of the sea, by sending ships to the bottom, and sinking them together with the men in them.

-- Leonardo da Vinci

People did not always think that the benefits of freely disseminating knowledge outweighed the harms. O.T. Benfey, writing in a 1956 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, cites F.S. Taylor’s book on early alchemists:

Alchemy was certainly intended to be useful .... But [the alchemist] never proposes the public use of such things, the disclosing of his knowledge for the benefit of man. …. Any disclosure of the alchemical secret was felt to be profoundly wrong, and likely to bring immediate punishment from on high. The reason generally given for such secrecy was the probable abuse by wicked men of the power that the alchemical would give …. The alchemists, indeed, felt a strong moral responsibility that is not always acknowledged by the scientists of today.

With the Renaissance, science began to be viewed as public property, but many scientists remained cautious about the way in which their work might be used. Although he held the office of military engineer, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) drew a distinction between offensive and defensive warfare, and emphasized the role of good defenses in protecting people’s liberty from tyrants. He described war as ‘bestialissima pazzia’ (most bestial madness), and wrote that ‘it is an infinitely atrocious thing to take away the life of a man’. One of the clearest examples of his reluctance to unleash dangerous inventions was his refusal to publish the details of his plans for submarines.

Later Renaissance thinkers continued to be concerned with the potential uses of their discoveries. John Napier (1550-1617), the inventor of logarithms, also experimented with a new form of artillery. Upon seeing its destructive power, he decided to keep its details a secret, and even spoke from his deathbed against the creation of new kinds of weapons.

But only concealing one discovery pales in comparison to the likes of Robert Boyle (1627-1691). A pioneer of physics and chemistry and possibly the most famous for describing and publishing Boyle’s law, he sought to make humanity better off, taking an interest in things such as improved agricultural methods as well as better medicine. In his studies, he also discovered knowledge and made inventions related to a variety of potentially harmful subjects, including poisons, invisible ink, counterfeit money, explosives, and kinetic weaponry. These ‘my love of Mankind has oblig’d me to conceal, even from my nearest Friends’.

Chemical warfare

By the early twentieth century, people had began looking at science in an increasingly optimistic light: it was believed that science would not only continue to improve everyone’s prosperity, but also make war outright impossible. But as science became more sophisticated, it would also become possible to cause ever more harm with ever smaller resources. One of the early indications of science’s ability to do harm came from advances in chemical warfare, and World War I saw the deployment of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas as weapons. It should not be surprising, then, that some scientists in related fields began growing concerned. But unlike earlier inventors, at least three of them did far more than just refuse to publish their work.

Clara Immerwahr (1870-1915) was a German chemist and the first woman to obtain a PhD from the University of Breslau. She was strongly opposed to the use of chemical weapons. Married to Fritz Haber, ‘the father of chemical warfare’, she unsuccessfully attempted many times to convince her husband to abandon his work. Immerwahr was generally depressed and miserable over the fact that society considered a married woman’s place to be at home, denying her the opportunity to do science. In the end, after her efforts to dissuade her husband from working on chemical warfare had failed and Fritz had personally overseen the first major use of chlorine, she committed suicide by shooting herself in the heart.

Poison gas also concerned scientists in other disciplines. Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953) was a mathematician and meteorologist. During the World War II, the military became interested in his work on turbulence and gas mixing, and attempted to recruit him to do help them do work on modeling the best ways of using poison gas. Realizing what his work was being used for, Richardson abandoned meteorology entirely and destroyed his unpublished research. Instead, he turned his research to investigating the causes of war, attempting to find ways to reduce the risk of armed conflict. He spent the rest of his life devoted to this topic, and is today considered one of the founders of the scientific analysis of conflict.

Arthur Galston (1920-2008), a botanist, was also concerned with the military use of his inventions. Building upon his work, the US military developed Agent Orange, a chemical weapon which was deployed in the Vietnam War. Upon discovering what his work had been used for, he began to campaign against its use, and together with a number of others finally convinced President Nixon to order an end to its spraying in 1970. Reflecting upon the matter, Galston wrote:

I used to think that one could avoid involvement in the antisocial consequences of science simply by not working on any project that might be turned to evil or destructive ends. I have learned that things are not all that simple, and that almost any scientific finding can be perverted or twisted under appropriate societal pressures. In my view, the only recourse for a scientist concerned about the social consequences of his work is to remain involved with it to the end. His responsibility to society does not cease with publication of a definitive scientific paper. Rather, if his discovery is translated into some impact on the world outside the laboratory, he will, in most instances, want to follow through to see that it is used for constructive rather than anti-human purposes.

After retiring in 1990, he founded the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale, where he also taught bioethics to undergraduates.

Nuclear weapons

While chemical weapons are capable of inflicting serious injuries as well as birth defects on large numbers of people, they have never been viewed to be as dangerous as nuclear weapons. As physicists became capable of creating weapons of unparalleled destructive power, they also began growing ever more concerned about the consequences of their work.

Leó Szilárd (1898-1964) was one of the first people to envision nuclear weapons, and was granted a patent for the nuclear chain reaction in 1934. Two years later, he grew worried that Nazi scientists would find his patents and use them to create weapons, so he asked the British Patent Office to withdraw his patents and secretly reassign them to the Royal Navy. His fear of Nazi Germany developing nuclear weapons also made him instrumental in making the USA initiate the Manhattan Project, as he and two other scientists wrote the Einstein-Szilárd letter that advised President Roosevelt of the need to develop the same technology. But in 1945, he learned that the atomic bomb was about to be used on Japan, despite it being certain that neither Germany nor Japan had one. He then did his best to stop them from being used and started a petition against using them, with little success.

After the war, he no longer wanted to contribute to the creation of weapons and changed fields to molecular biology. In 1962, he founded the Council for a Livable World, which aimed to warn people about the dangers of nuclear war and to promote a policy of arms control. The Council continues its work even today.

Another physicist who worked on the atomic bomb due to a fear of it being developed by Nazi Germany was Joseph Rotblat (1908-2005), who felt that the Allies also having an atomic bomb would deter the Axis from using one. But he gradually began to realize that Nazi Germany would likely never develop the atomic bomb, destroying his initial argument for working on it. He also came to realize that the bomb continued to be under active development due to reasons that he felt were unethical. In conversation, General Leslie Groves mentioned that the real purpose of the bomb was to subdue the USSR. Rotblat was shocked to hear this, especially given that the Soviet Union was at the time an ally in the war effort. In 1944, it became apparent that Germany would not develop the atomic bomb. As a result, Rotblat asked for permission to leave the project, and was granted it.

Afterwards, Rotblat regretted his role in developing nuclear weapons. He believed that the logic of nuclear deterrence was flawed, since he thought that if Hitler had possessed an atomic bomb, then Hitler’s last order would have been to use it against London regardless of the consequences. Rotblat decided to do whatever he could to prevent the future use and deployment of nuclear weapons, and proposed a worldwide moratorium on such research until humanity was wise enough to use it without risks. He decided to repurpose his career into something more useful for humanity, and began studying and teaching the application of nuclear physics into medicine, becoming a professor at the Medical College of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

Rotblat worked together with Bertrand Russell to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, and the two collaborated with a number of other scientists to issue the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955, calling the governments of the world to take action to prevent nuclear weapons from doing more damage. The manifesto led to the establishment of the Pugwash Conferences, in which nuclear scientists from both the West and the East met each other. By facilitating dialogue between the two sides of the Cold War, these conferences helped lead to several arms control agreements, such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. In 1995, Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms”.

The development of nuclear weapons also affected Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the originator of the field of cybernetics. After the Hiroshima bombing, a researcher working for a major aircraft corporation requested a copy of an earlier paper of Wiener’s. Wiener refused to provide it, and sent Atlantic Monthly a copy of his response to the researcher, in which he declared his refusal to share his research with anyone who would use it for military purposes.

In the past, the community of scholars has made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these facts: The policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the established custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may inquire of him. The interchange of ideas, one of the great traditions of science, must of course receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death. [...]
The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use. It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that that weapon will be used. [...]
If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples-and I most certainly do not-I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. Since it is obvious that with sufficient effort you can obtain my material, even though it is out of print, I can only protest pro forma in refusing to give you any information concerning my past work. However, I rejoice at the fact that my material is not readily available, inasmuch as it gives me the opportunity to raise this serious moral issue. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists.
I am taking the liberty of calling this letter to the attention of other people in scientific work. I believe it is only proper that they should know of it in order to make their own independent decisions, if similar situations should confront them.

Recombinant DNA

For a large part of history, scientists’ largest ethical concerns came from direct military applications of their inventions. While any invention could lead to unintended societal or environmental consequences, for the most part researchers who worked on peaceful technologies didn’t need to be too concerned with their work being dangerous by itself. But as biological and medical research obtained the capability to modify genes and bacteria, it would open up the possibility of unintentionally creating dangerous infectious diseases. In theory, these could be even more dangerous than nuclear weapons - an a-bomb dropped on a city might destroy most of that city, but a single bacteria could give rise to an epidemic infecting people all around the world.

Recombinant DNA techniques involve taking DNA from one source and then introducing it to another kind of organism, causing the new genes to express themselves in the target organism. One of the pioneers of this technique was Paul Berg (1926-), who in 1972 had already carried out the preparations for creating a strain of E. coli that contained the genome for a human-infectious virus (SV40) with tentative links to cancer. Robert Pollack (1920-) heard news of this experiment and helped convince Berg to halt it - both were concerned about the danger that this new strain would spread to humans in the lab and become a pathogen. Berg then became a major voice calling for more attention to the risks of such research as well as a temporary moratorium. This eventually led to two conferences in Asilomar, with 140 experts participating in the later 1975 one to decide upon guidelines for recombinant DNA research.

Berg and Pollack were far from the only scientists to call attention to the safety concerns of recombinant DNA. Several other scientists contributed, asking for more safety and voicing concern about a technology that could bring harm if misused.

Among them, the molecular biologist Maxine Singer (1931-) chaired the 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids, in which some of the dangers of the technique were discussed. After the conference, she and several other similarly concerned scientists authored a letter to the President of the National Academy of Science and the President of the Institutes of Health. The letter suggested that a study committee be established to study the risks behind the new recombinant DNA technology, and propose specific actions or guidelines if necessary. She also helped organize the Asilomar Conference in 1975.


But if we are downloaded into our technology, what are the chances that we will thereafter be ourselves or even human? It seems to me far more likely that a robotic existence would not be like a human one in any sense that we understand, that the robots would in no sense be our children, that on this path our humanity may well be lost.

-- Bill Joy, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.

Finally, we come to the topic of information technology and artificial intelligence. As AI systems grow increasingly autonomous, they might become the ultimate example of a technology that seems initially innocuous but ends up capable of doing great damage. Especially if they were to become capable of rapid self-improvement, they could lead to humanity going extinct.

In addition to refusing to help military research, Norbert Wiener was also concerned about the effects of automation. In 1949, General Electric wanted him to advise its managers on automaton matters and to teach automation methods to its engineers. Wiener refused these requests, believing that they would further a development which would lead to human workers becoming unemployed and replaced by machines. He thus expanded his boycott of the military to also be a boycott of corporations that he thought acted unethically.

Wiener was also concerned about the risks of autonomous AI. In 1960, Science published his paper "Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation", in which he spoke at length about the dangers of machine intelligence. He warned that machines might act far too fast for humans to correct their mistakes, and that like genies in stories, they could fulfill the letter of our requests without caring about their spirit. He also discussed such worries elsewhere.

If we use, to achieve our purposes, a mechanical agency with whose operation we cannot efficiently interfere once we have started it, because the action is so fast and irrevocable that we have not the data to intervene before the action is complete, then we had better be quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire and not merely a colorful imitation of it.

Such worries would continue to bother other computer scientists as well, many decades after Wiener’s death. Bill Joy (1954-) is known for having played a major role in the development of BSD Unix, having authored the vi text editor, and being the co-founder of Sun Microsystems. He became concerned about the effects of AI in 1998, when he met Ray Kurzweil at a conference where they were both speakers. Kurzweil gave Joy a preprint of his then-upcoming book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and Joy found himself concerned over its discussion about the risks of AI. Reading Hans Moravec’s book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind exacerbated Joy’s worries, as did several other books which he found around the same time. He began to wonder whether all of his work in the field of information technology and computing had been preparing the way for a world where machines would replace humans.

In 2000, Joy wrote a widely-read article titled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us for Wired, talking about the dangers of AI as well as genetic engineering and nanotechnology. In the article, he called to limit the development of technologies which he felt were too dangerous. Since then, he has continued to be active in promoting responsible technology research. In 2005, an op-ed co-authored by Joy and Ray Kurzweil was published in the New York Times, arguing that the decision to publish the genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet had been a mistake.

Joy also attempted to write a book on the topic, but then became convinced that he could achieve more by working on science and technology investment. In 2005, he joined the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as a partner, and he has been focused on investments in green technology.


Technology's potential for destruction will only continue to grow, but many of the social norms of science were established under the assumption that scientists don’t need to worry much about how the results of their work are used. Hopefully, the examples provided in this post can encourage more researchers to consider the broader consequences of their work.

Sources used

This article was written based on research done by Vincent Fagot. The sources listed below are in addition to any that are already linked from the text.

Leonardo da Vinci:

John Napier:

Robert Boyle:

Clara Immerwahr:

Lewis Fry Richardson:

Arthur Galston:

Leó Szilárd:

Joseph Rotblat:

Norbert Wiener:

Paul Berg, Maxine Singer, Robert Pollack: