First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Science and Freedom of the Press
The Bush administration has come up against one of the toughest issues in national security.
Our enemies are using our science against us.
And we can't easily stop them without stopping our own scientific research.
Back in World War II, the government was able to keep the secret of the Manhattan Project -- the atomic bomb -- even from top officials in the U.S. But the core scientific research had already been completed and published.
In fact, the science fiction community has lore about science fiction writers getting hauled in for questioning about stories they wrote dealing with atomic weapons. "How did you get this information?" demanded their inquisitors. And the hapless sci-fi writer pointed to scientific journals published before the war, which already contained the theoretical basis of the A-bomb.
That's where we are again. If our enemies use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons against us, you can count on it that key components of their weapons will have been built using research conducted in America and published in English-language journals.
The first impulse of our government, in their legitimate desire to protect our people, is to say, "Let's cut this thing off at the root! If we can keep the lid on this information, we can stop them from getting ahead of us."
But the fact is, we can't.
Because if we block the publication of scientific research in dangerous fields --particularly if we cut out the sections dealing with methodology of research -- we will have stopped our own science cold.
Science is not done in the lab. Research is done in the lab. Science is done in the journals.
This is why: Science, when it's properly done, absolutely requires that the complete experiment be published. Not just the results, but the step-by-step process by which the results were arrived at.
Publication allows other scientists to:
1. Criticize the methodology by offering alternate explanations as to why the experiment gave the results it gave.
2. Conduct the same experiment to see if it yields the same results.
Without that requirement of complete publication, we might still believe those Utah scientists achieved cold fusion fifteen years ago.
And when a particular line of research is slapped with a top-secret classification, the science in that area is stopped cold.
The actual mechanics of building a weapon or delivery system can usually be kept secret with no harm to science as a whole. That's because technology is an engineering problem, and engineers solve these problems by studying the theory and then using trial and error to work out the technology.
Biological warfare, however, is uniquely complicated because the weapon is self-replicating, and the experiments rely on state-of-the-art technology.
In other words, the methodology to advance scientific knowledge is very similar to the processes that would produce bio-weapons.
The only way to cut off the science from our enemies is to cut it off from ourselves.
Fine, then. We don't want bio-weapons, anyway. Let nobody have them!
But we do want bio-weapons. We want bio-weapons that will end diabetes. Wipe out HIV. Prevent Alzheimer's. Rebuild damaged nerves.
You can't have the genie of science out of the bottle, keeping America at the forefront of knowledge and saving humankind from many of the afflictions that plague us, and also keep America safe by holding the genie of science safely within the bottle, where no one can get to it.
The press, of course, will cover this in the standard way: Evil fascist Bush administration wants to destroy science.
We know better. They are trying to do the right thing. In this case, however, the right thing cannot be done. It's like killing a man so he won't catch a disease. It works, but the patient is dead.
We have to settle for second best: find out where the enemy's research and production are being carried out, and then risk American lives (and collateral damage) to destroy production facilities and kill soldier-scientists producing bio-weapons for monsters to use.
A cynic could say that after "Saving Private Ryan," everybody had to make a World War II movie. But that doesn't mean they will all be cynical ripoffs.
Take a look at Hart's War. Bruce Willis is in good-actor mode (as opposed to wise-cracking film star mode) as he plays a supporting role to the fine performance of Colin Farrell as a headquarters-based lieutenant who finds himself captured at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
There are grisly moments, and echoes of other war pictures -- "The Great Escape" and "Stalag 17" are purposely invoked. But this is a story about courage, honor, and trust, and almost all the major characters are good guys torn by conflicting duties and motives.
At the heart of the movie is a trial -- though the movie is not really about the trial. A couple of black airmen are captured and are placed in an enlisted-men's barracks, though they are officers. One of them is murdered; the other, played movingly by Terrence Howard, swears vengeance against the worst of the bigoted American soldiers who threatened them. Sure enough, the bigot turns up dead and the surviving black airman is charged with the crime.
Our hero, Hart, is made the defense attorney, and then is faced with what seem to be deliberate attempts by Willis, the commander of the prisoners, to sabotage the defense.
It could have been played out as the standard "white guy saves black victim" movie in which somehow white actors always get to play the heroes of the civil rights struggle.
Or it could have been played out as "all white people are bigots except the wonderful white people who made this movie."
Instead, it is morally complicated and deeply interesting, and in the end, you understand everybody as a human being -- even, in his own way, the murdered bigot. Howard's character is not a pawn. Indeed, he and Hart and the Willis character all make the same heroic moral choice.
"Hart's War" is that rare thing: a film that thinks its audience is as smart as the filmmakers. And it deals with a vital issue we face today: Just because our enemy is evil does not mean that we don't need to improve ourselves.
Speaking of race in America, I was saddened a bit by Carole B. Weatherford's column in Monday's N&R. In "Where have the great black leaders gone?" she inadvertently answers her own question. After pointing out how the great figures from black culture seem to have been replaced in recent days by leaders of far lesser stature, she then ends her column by criticizing the NAACP's plan to honor Condoleeza Rice at the Image Awards ceremony on March 1st.
Why? What could be wrong with that choice? Rice is a black woman who has taken her place at the table of power, not as a token given a relatively powerless cabinet office, but because she really is the best person for the job of watching over national security.
But Weatherford thinks that Rice's political views, which are not "politically correct," disqualify her as a black leader.
It happens that I agree with Weatherford's assessment of Rice's views on the Civil Rights Movement (if those ideas are accurately reported). Where I disagree with Weatherford is in her assumption that being wrong on one point wipes out Rice's value to America in general and to black Americans in particular.
Maybe some thought should be given to the possibility that the great leaders that African-America once produced were invariably people who did not believe or do what everyone else thought they should.
Instead, any African-American leader who strays outside the box these days is vilified and victimized by whispering campaigns. Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, John McWhorter, even the much-loathed Shelby Steele are serious people whose ideas ought to be part of the public discussion of all Americans, even if they're wrong.
Maybe the fact that they are out of step with the existing, obviously inadequate African-American leadership should be their best credential instead of their complete disqualification.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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