Let me make something clear: I am not in favor of banning research into any field. I do think the integrity and ethics of individuals conducting certain research should be questioned, to shame them into doing something more responsible.
It may be a pipe-dream, but I'd like to think that many of these problems can be resolved with enough forethought.
The thing is, we've had almost a century and they've not been resolved. In fact, people are busily trying to scrub the memory of Burt's fraud so they can make some more of the very same mistakes which were made before he was discredited. If history proves anything, it is that people are wonderfully prone to keep making the same mistakes over and over, no matter how many opportunities they are given to learn otherwise.
I think your example of atomic bombs is akin to an argument against the space program. Some will say "what possible benefits have we gained?" while ignoring all the related knowledge and advancement.
As a matter of fact, I am very much in favor of space exploration, and it's one of the few things that give me some pride in the matter of having been born human. Remarkably few people have been killed or had their freedom taken away in the name of space exploration, and the monies spent on it are quite modest compared to some of our other boondoggles.
The horrific power and subsequent use of nuclear weapons is indeed a blight on human knowledge; but isn't there some positive knowledge that has come out of it? Can you separate the two?
As a matter of fact I'm pretty conversant on this topic. Takes deep breath.
It is very doubtful that the Manhattan Project would have succeeded if Leslie Groves had not deliberately hidden the discovery that the Germans had no hope of making their own bomb from our people who were making our bomb. A large percentage of the Project scientists were appalled that we used such a weapon on Japan and stated bluntly that their work had been misused.
It is also very doubtful that there would have been an invasion of Japan with N+1 (where N is a very large number) casualties if we did not have the bomb. At the time of the Trinity test the Japanese were suing for peace, under terms which we eventually granted them anyway. Because the bomb was proven to work, we answered them (in the Potsdam Declaration) with terms no sane government could accept, presumably (a strong case can be made) so we could use them for target practice.
It is also very doubtful that anybody would ever have built an atomic bomb (much less a thermonuclear) if the Manhattan Project had not done it. No nation since has had either the production capacity or inclination to enter such a vast and costly project without knowing for sure that it could succeed.
It is likely that the course of particle physics would have been slowed, but probably not halted, without the fundamental research done at Los Alamos. It is also likely that the development of computing machines would have been delayed, since some of the critical early ones were developed at great cost for use in the thermonuclear project. But there is also reason to think they would have eventually been developed anyway, just later.
Aside for a few cancer therapies, there is little which would have been permanently lost other than the Bomb itself if the Manhattan Project had never been initiated. Nearly all the same basic knowledge could have been gotten from particle accelerator studies. Nuclear power has always been more expensive than conventional power, and is likely to remain so forever, since the long-term disposal costs never have been added to the balance sheet.
Meanwhile, the crippling costs of the Cold War might have been avoided or at least reduced if neither side suspected the other of being able to burn down all their cities in a matter of half an hour.
All in all, the main thing we got from the Manhattan Project was the infrastructure necessary to make buttloads of fissionable material, an infrastructure nobody else would ever have assembled if not for the proven possibility of making atomic bombs. As I've often said, the secret of the atomic bomb was not given to the Soviets by the Rosenbergs -- it was given to them by us at Trinity. When nobody knows if it will work the expense cannot be justified, but if you know it is possible and that your enemy is building them, the expense is very easily justified.
So, localroger's judgement on the Manhattan Project is: It was a Very Bad Idea. There were people like Leslie Groves who were plotting to do the things with it that made it a Bad Idea long before it was even certain to succeed. But overall, it's easy to see why so many of the participants went ahead with it. At the time, it seemed like a small evil in comparison with others more pressing.
Now, should nuclear research have been banned? That wouldn't have been necessary. If we hadn't spent the oodles of $$$$ necessary to figure out that the Bomb was possible, it is nearly certain nobody else would have bothered. Of course once the world knows Bombs can be built then trying to ban the research is like trying to ban rain.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand...
Not everyone has the motivation to overcome [insert a given addiction]. Do you turn your back on them? Not everyone has the power to exert the necessary self-control that would limit their actions due to [insert socially detrimental tendency]. Are they a lost cause?
This is precisely my point. How, exactly, do you "help" them? Because I don't see any avenues leading to anything I'd call "help." I do see all kinds of nifty possibilities for social engineering, which are spectacularly unfair to the people who do have the motivation to overcome [insert socially undesirable tendency]. Unlike the Manhattan Project scientists, we have the advantage of hindsight in this regard, and the results have not been pretty. I consider it morally irresponsible to go into these avenues of research without some idea as to what will happen should you get the answer you are looking for. Just as we consider you responsible if you leave a loaded gun around for a child to find, I consider you responsible if you give would-be totalitarian buttheads the excuse they need to start locking people up and scrambling their brains. You don't have the excuse of not knowing they will do it. They have done it every single time.
Most scientists I've spoken to (I have over the years spoken with a lot of scientists) distance themselves from the effects of their research. Even when the grant proposal is being slanted toward the stated aims of the people who are being solicited for a grant, the scientist often pretends that he is "neutral" and just "using" the monied agency to kick-start his search for truth.
But it doesn't work that way, or at least never has; the agencies that write grants for research are hoping for results. Particular results. If you don't reliably give them the results they want, they will stop giving you money. Does this color how you do your research? If you are such a paragon of moral virtue that you would claim it doesn't, what about the next guy? Again, the history of the subject at hand is not kind. If you voluntarily entered the field of heritability research I cannot help but have deep and unpleasant suspicions about your motivations and moral character. And at this point it would take a lot of evidence to make me change my mind.
I can haz blog!
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