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Science for murder and profit

  1. Jan 22, 2016 #1
    Sergey_KGB recently posted on the particle physics forum. He wanted to avoid political discussion and focus on the technical issues of the Alexander Litvinenko assassination.

    I'm more interested in the political/social aspects of the use of science and technology to kill human beings and steal their wealth. Personally I think this is bad and needs to be stopped, but my beliefs on this are mostly religious.

    So is there any scientific reason to limit extrajudicial killings, be they polonium poisonings or drone strikes? Is there anything the scientific community can or should do to limit this sort of behavior?
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  3. Jan 22, 2016 #2


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    I don't see that science has much to say about ethics.
  4. Jan 22, 2016 #3
    There is nothing wrong with a faith-based view of "You shall not commit murder" or "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." While other products of faith-based morality are no longer widely accepted in scientific and secular discussions, these two still are (at least for now).

    I've never seen science as a fundamental basis for morality. But being a scientist or engineer does not preclude folks from speaking when we are aware of evil. I've given this much thought, since one of my areas of expertise is ballistics. At what point does providing more effective tools of war attach greater accountability on the scientist? I think due consideration of Just War theory is very important here, but I am less sure how to weigh the fact that the tools of war provided at one time for a just cause may well be used decades later for much greater harm for unjust causes such as extrajudicial killings.

    How much trust should a scientist have for those to whom he delivers powerful weapons of war? I've shifted most of my emphasis not to defensive technologies (armor). But in unjust hands, improved armor just keeps the bad guys alive longer to carry out their unjust agenda.
  5. Jan 22, 2016 #4
    Poisoning someone with polonium is an exotic way of killing them, but I don't think the fact it was accomplished with radioactive material makes it a scientific matter, such that scientists would have anything insightful to add to the mix, or any special power to stop such things. Whoever gave the assassin(s) the polonium was almost certainly strong-armed into doing it, wouldn't you suppose?

    As for drones, I would suppose the engineers are glad to be keeping troops or special forces personnel, who would otherwise be sent in to do the job, out of harm's way.
  6. Jan 22, 2016 #5


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    Are you an engineer or scientist? Appliers of science, such as doctors and engineers have field specific ethics codes and training. It is one of the reasons why lethal injections are tough to administer - doctors consider it an ethics violation. Do scientists have ethics codes and training?

    When it comes to warfare, ethics tends to not be well connected to the science of its tools though.
  7. Jan 22, 2016 #6


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    I have always been very much opposed to any application of science (including mathematics) in the defense industry, until the recent developments in the Middle East. For the first time I felt drawn to contributing to the development of offensive weapons, which incidentally often rely on beautiful control principles. I thought to myself: If I can do interesting applied mathematics and at the same time contribute to a good cause, then why not? Yet, I felt very guilty about thinking that way. Probably it's very naive as well.

    These are hard decisions for which the individual (and he alone) can (and should!) take responsibility. I agree with Russ, in the sense that I believe science by itself to be unethical: it does not distinguish between good and evil.
  8. Jan 22, 2016 #7
    Technology may be used for purposes I find immoral. But there is no getting out of it. If I'm a farmer, the food I grow could be eaten by an immoral person, used as fuel to continue their crimes. If I'm a massage therapist, my patient might be using the resulting relaxed frame of mind to better do evil. If I build or maintain a road, it might be used for an immoral purpose. Even meditation largely developed out of the martial arts, as a means of making oneself a more effective killer.

    Technology facilitates immoral actions. But it also facilitates moral actions. Which sum is greater? We don't know, but in general I think it does more good than harm.

    I used to work in Silicon Valley. No doubt I very indirectly helped build devices the use of which I do not approve. I don't feel happy about it, but I kept it at a minimum. And like I said, there wasn't any getting out of it other than moving abroad to a newly peaceful country, which I eventually did.

    Consider the atomic bomb, a horribly destructive device. I credit the atomic bomb for ending the endless cycle of war between the great powers. So is it good or bad? I say more good than bad, though the story is not yet over.

    Technology is a tool, like a hammer. Is a hammer a bad thing if used for an evil purpose? Nevertheless, there are technologies I would never have anything to do with.

    After the fall of the Roman Empire the world pretty much got rid of their technology. That included getting rid of writing, so we don't know what happened then. I'd like to know. But this seems like a rather drastic solution. I think the problem lies not in technology, but the use thereof. If people decide to bonk one another over the head, they will, whether with clubs or AK-47s. The current crisis is a failure of the humanities, not the sciences. The problem is moral and political, not technological.

    Scientists are not a unified political force. Scientists and engineers aren't terribly social. They seldom take action as a collective. When they do it tends to be clumsy, as the recent global warming scandal demonstrates. I say, don't look to them/us for help. Writing a letter to your congressman is a good step. Then it is old-fashioned political organizing. Petitions, rallies, you know the gig. If you are religious you might try to convince other religious people that killing human beings and stealing their wealth is a bad thing. That might be a step in the right direction. I've had so little success with that that I no longer try.
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2016
  9. Jan 22, 2016 #8
    True enough. But science can be useful in determining which courses are and are not in the best long-term interests of the human race.

    Unfortunately such information is currently ignored or even denounced. People for the most part do that which they feel like doing. They don't like scientists making them feel guilty about it.

    It seems silly to me to spend all that money on universities and learning and such and then pay no attention to what that system produces. But that's life these days. Where is Dwight Eisenhower now that we need him?
  10. Jan 22, 2016 #9
    Here's what pop musician Kate Bush has to say about it.

    IMO we need more of this kind of stuff from humanists.
  11. Jan 22, 2016 #10


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    [And don't forget the pilots]
    Yeah, I think drones are a tenuous example because even if one thinks there is such a thing as "extrajudicial killings", the fraction of drone strikes that fit the label would be near zero.
  12. Jan 22, 2016 #11
    I think the point of the polonium was that it was supposedly undetectable.

    Do scientists have an ethical responsibility to avoid making weapons clearly designed for extra judicial killings, like concentrated polonium? Or can they say, "I was just following orders."? A steady paycheck is a wonderful thing. But does it clear culpability?
  13. Jan 22, 2016 #12
    You are likely right, but I wanted to make it clear I wasn't picking on the Russians. They do not have a lock on extra-judicial killings.
  14. Jan 22, 2016 #13
    Like I said, I'd bet whoever supplied the polonium was strong-armed. In any case where it was purely voluntary with no threats, then, yes, they should not do it for any amount of money. But then there might be cases where a given supplier might actually agree that the target deserves death.

    You might be interested in a book called, "Between Heaven and Hell" by Alan Rimmer. It's about William Penney, a British physicist who helped out at Los Alamos and went on to become the driving force behind Britain's building of their own H-bomb. He was nicknamed, "the smiling killer" because he always got a big smile on his face when explaining how he'd figured out to create yet more casualties. He deeply hated the Germans and the Japanese (and later the Soviets) and was enthusiastic about destroying as many of them as possible.
  15. Jan 22, 2016 #14


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    Fair enough, I just think that if there is an ethical conundrum to be had, the link between the scientist/engineer and the questionable act has to be noticeable by the scientist/engineer. Even in the case of the Polonium poisoning, I'm not sure there was much, if any, direct involvement of scientists/engineers.

    The Manhattan project is the prime example of the issue due to its crystal clear purpose, though apparently that wasn't known by people working on the periphery of the project. Still, there were likely thousands of people who knew the project they were working on was intended to kill Japanese and likely German civilians.

    You also mentioned "profit" and "theft", but didn't give any examples, so I'm not sure what you were after with that. I have one, though: hacking. Many hackers do what they do for fun and don't pay attention to the ethical lines they are crossing. But there is a fairly well developed counter-culture that at best is an "alternative" ethic and at worst intentionally and unrepentantly destructive. My instincts tell me Bitcoin was at best intentionally subversive and at worst an intentional tool of crime or direct scam.
  16. Jan 22, 2016 #15
    Someone prepared a lethal dose of pure polonium in applicator form. They knew or should have known what it was for. And one of the things it was for was seizing control of the oil wealth in Russia (and I suspect abroad). Putin rules by fear and intimidation. His enemies are poisoned at home and abroad. He loots what he wants.

    Nor is he the only one. President Obama ordered the death of Anwar al-Awlaki without due process while Anwar's representatives were undergoing legal action (i.e. they had approached a court to deal with the issues Obama was concerned about.) Now children in Yemen hope for low clouds so they can play outside without fear of drone strikes. And yes, some have observed oil wealth in the region. (I'm not arguing there aren't other important issues in the region, nor that some form of violence isn't needed, just that we engage in extra judicial killing as well. It is a broad problem.)

    America has a long history of subverting government, starting with the Boston Tea party. Personally I prefer peaceful protests like Bit Coin to violent ones.

    Of course many hackers don't care who they hurt. Many more are strong armed into malfeasance when they naively start dealing with crooks. Neither group should be given a pass. (I was only following orders/I was forced is at best a mitigating factor, IMO.)

    The thing that gets me is that few scientists are stupid. It's not hard to see the coming blowback.
  17. Jan 22, 2016 #16
    While I agree that science itself is not bounded by morals, I'm more concerned about when there is a project that is definitely immoral, at which point does the entire scientific community say "No, we're not working on this"... As it seems to stand, in science and in every other field, there will always be someone who's moral code allows them to do something, which means that it's irrelevant if the 'moral' scientists don't.. the project will be done anyhow.

    Morality is such a gray zone because each individual has a different moral code (if any).. Any imposed limits by one group on another will be viewed as unjust, etc

    I don't think comparing hackers to scientists working on WMD's a good analogy... Very rarely does a hacker cause bodily harm or death (with autonomous cars that may change though).. Mostly they do it to cause monetary loss and for bragging rights.

    We have woven a very tangled web!
  18. Jan 23, 2016 #17


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    I'm not sure how much expertise is really required for that. But it isn't like the polonium had to be specially produced for the task. Regardless, since not much is known about what happened, it's a lot of speculation.

    Much of the rest of your post is highly politically and emotionally charged and doesn't really lend much to the discussion of the topic you proposed: Your political gripes don't really have much to do with the topic of scientific/engineering ethics. And in particular you really should try to deal more in facts and logic than emotion on these types of things. For example:
    Do they? Have you asked any? Sorry, but that's just irrelevant political fantasy nonsense. It has nothing whatsoever to do with extrajudicial killings, much less drones specifically, much less the topic of the thread. It's just a generic anti-war gripe with an oddly specific target.

    What is this thread supposed to be about? Is it a discussion of the morality/ethics of the conduct of war or discussion of scientific/engineering ethics? The two are largely separate issues.
  19. Jan 23, 2016 #18


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    I didn't intend to imply that hacking was on the same level as an atomic bomb - there really can't be anything more harmful than an atomic bomb. The OP specifically mentions "stealing", so I gave an example I think fits.
  20. Jan 23, 2016 #19
    You're right, I kinda jumped to that conclusion myself.

    Going back to Polonium, It is just an element, and IIRC not a synthesized one either.. which really leaves the scientific community out of it.

    A agree that Putin certainly doesn't have a lock on extrajudicial killings.. Bin Laden was a perfect example.
  21. Jan 23, 2016 #20
  22. Jan 23, 2016 #21
    OK, so it's naturally occurring but not in sufficient quantities to ever be usable, it does require synthesis for workable amounts
  23. Jan 23, 2016 #22
    Once again, I'm trying to point out the broader question is about extra-judicial killing and technologists role in that killing. I am not trying to make this about, "Putin is bad."

    When scientists engage in war, scientific ethics and ethics of war go hand in hand. When a nuclear engineer prepares a sample of polonium to slip in someone's tea, she actively takes part in an assassination. Or perhaps I'm wrong? Perhaps only those who order the murder should be held accountable? That is certainly a debatable point.

    Drones have lots of civilian uses (or should have, your legal system will vary). So this isn't primarily about Americans, but we are not immune to the questions either. Still, in some other countries the problem is greater. Yet all governments seek power, and some in them will ignore law and order to get it. They will seek the support of the scientific community to reach their goal.

    Does the community have any responsibility to limit their involvement? Or should each scientist decide for herself when murder is acceptable?
  24. Jan 23, 2016 #23
    I am a scientist, and I have had considerable training in ethics of science. There is a lot of focus on intellectual honesty (data supporting conclusions and acknowledging contributions and sources) and ethics of research (proper approvals for human and animal research and safety). Questions relating to intentional killing (and contributing to the tools of war) are more thoroughly addressed in training related to the oath taken by all DoD employees and members of the US military:

    I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

    While no member of the armed forces is bound to obey an unlawful order, and civilian scientists have broader latitude not to violate their consciences (though it may cost them their job), the ethical issues surrounding "extrajudicial" killings pretty much boils down to the questions of legality. Nearly every killing in combat and war are "extrajudicial." The question of specific targets comes down to whether they are legitimate enemy combatants. The question of many unfortunate civilian casualties is whether they are acceptable collateral damage for a necessary mission or operation.

    War will never have the precision we aspire to in the domestic criminal justice system, and part of the down side to provoking a war with a nation like Russia or the US is the lack of precision in their response will result in casualties of both combatants and non-combatants. The desire to parade non-combatant casualties around on TV to show how evil the larger country is has become something of a standard tactic among rogue nations and non-state entities who engage in combat. In many cases, the desire is to lure more military personnel into a region rather than be subject to less precise methods (air power, drones, etc.) which tend to result in more collateral damage. At some point in a war, it doesn't make sense to increase the military casualty rate on our side by thousands in order to decrease the collateral damage among our enemies. If the enemies of the US want to reduce casualties of the non-combatants among their people, they need to stop hiding among them.

    The greater temptation for most DoD scientists is much different and relates more to money through lucrative defense contracts. The more common ethical violation is fudging the data and claiming that some system works better than it does or meets specifications that it doesn't. It's not much different from the ethical violation professors commit when they assign passing grades to students who have not met the learning objectives.
  25. Jan 23, 2016 #24
    I think there is a huge difference between military officers engaged in acts of war, and CIA/FSB/Mossad/Al Qadea agents acting for unstated and often obscure objectives. Perhaps a key element is transparency? President Obama publicly announced who he was hunting and why. Putin and other dictators hide what they do. So while Obama might have broken the letter of the law, he kept well within its spirit.

    Of course Putin was hunting a former KGB agent whom he (with some justification) considered a traitor, so...
  26. Jan 23, 2016 #25


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    I guess I figured that. The ethics you learn are the ones that are most applicable to the job. Most engineering ethics is similarly job related: intellectual honesty (again) and in particular, related to how one deals with mistakes and problems. The Challenger explosion, the Hayatt walkway collapse, the Ford Pinto/Mustang fires, etc.
    You sound like you have some experience with that. I spent time at the Naval Academy and in the Navy and we had extra leadership and ethics courses in school, plus ethics seminars outside of school. Most people have little knowledge or frame of reference for exploring the ethical/moral/legal issues of war.

    As you say, the issue of "extrajudicial killing" is often broadly defined, but rarely applicable except in extremely narrow and rare circumstances, especially when it comes to the conduct of the West (we don't "disappeared" reporters like Russia does). General application of the idea to war is flat-out wrong. Application to spies is accurate but basically irrelevant: spies, by design, operate outside the law. They know it when they sign up. All governments agree with it. It sucks, but in the recent prisoner swap with Iran, an American (reported) spy was not included. But he knew the risk when he signed-up for it.

    Alexander Litvinenko was a spy. Ironically, what got him in trouble with Russia was opposition to illegal extrajudicial killings they did. So he turned traitor, moved to London and exposed KGB operations and consulted with British Intelligence. So Russia killed him. That's the way spying works. Yes, it is "extrajudicial", but that's on Litvinenko: he chose a job that existed outside the law and knew the risks.
    Agreed. It is important to recognize that most of our enemies understand that they are weaker militarily than we are and as such they resort to what is charitably referred to as "unconventional warfare". The thread is all over the place, so I'm not sure if collateral damage was one of the points (probably), but yes, a high fraction of collateral damage comes from our enemies purposely putting their civilians in harms way: a violation of the Geneva conventions.

    As someone who was in the military and looked into employment in the defense industry, I and I suspect most people in such jobs have a good understanding of these issues. Of course, none of this has anything to do with science/engineering: the policy makers make the decisions and everyone working for the defense contractor is responsible for the outcome, whether the engineers designing the weapons or the janitor sweeping the floor. If there's blood on anyone's hands, it's on everyone's hands.
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