Monday 16 March 2020

POETRY: A Greater Question (concerning the new coronavirus)

Posted by Chengde Chen * and Yingfang Zhang
Part II 
“Genetic engineering technology is designed to enable genes to cross species 
barriers.” – Martin Khor, New diseases as viruses break species barriers… 

The people in the Doomsday horror are speculating:
Is the virus destroying mankind man-made?
If so, by whom?
Some suspect China, while others, America

But a greater question is if science can do it
If it can, won’t the disaster happen sooner or later?
Hiroshima/Nagasaki was a continuation of atomic physics
Chernobyl was what nuclear technology had entailed

When scientists said they didn’t do it this time
It meant they had been able to
So, whether it was man-made this time, or by whom,
Has been a relatively–secondary question!

If it has been possible, then it is inevitable –
A fatal car-crash for the driver is a matter of time
If we still can’t see science is such a car for mankind
What does it matter if it happens this time or the next?

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.


Keith said...

‘[I]f science can do it … won’t the disaster happen sooner or later?’

I’m unclear, Chengde and Yingfang, as to where the poem goes with what strikes me as an anti-science theme. Are you suggesting we should end the pursuit of science and technology, because we sometimes make errors? Do the purported errors really cancel out the benefits? Should we defer on all the good that science and technology have given us, and bar future investigation out of arguably irrational fear? The poem says, ‘If it has been possible, then it is inevitable’. I don’t believe history supports such absolutism.

By logical extension to the poem’s theme, what about the errors made in other intellectual, academic, practical quarters of society? For example, should we end the pursuit of all forms of government, because some policies happened to lead to, say, genocide? Should we end the pursuit of all engineering, because it happened to lead to, say, a bridge’s collapse? Should we end the pursuit of all religion, because it happened to lead to, say, the crusades? Should we end the pursuit of all medical intervention, because it happened to lead to, say, thalidomide? Risk is real, but ought not be allowed to paralyse us.

I don’t know where the end is to this ostensible expectation that only error-free pursuits by humanity are worthy. For there are no such pursuits — arguably haven’t been, won’t be. Which, to my mind, doesn’t render investigation and development any less redeemable. Isn’t science one among other credible means to understanding and, dare I say it, truth? The consequences of anti-science and anti-technology could dangerously cascade.

Keith said...

‘Is the [corona]virus destroying mankind man-made? … Some suspect China, while others America’.

Maybe; but I’m dubious. Especially if the point here is a nation weaponising this ‘novel’ virus — and all the more dubious, given the range of nations being treated to a gut punch, and the WHO having promoted the virus from epidemic to pandemic. If it’s a weapon, it badly backfired.

Relatedly, I’m leery of disinformation and conspiracy theories running around social media and other internet avenues. The other week, I had a reason to come up with a (tongue-in-cheek) expression for these sorts of online happenings: Malignly Adaptive Disinformation–Microtargeted Adversarial News (MAD-MAN).

Sure, the term is a too-big mouthful that might beg for the Heimlich maneuver; but the intent was for the acronym to say it all.

docmartincohen said...

Isn't the argument that science has extended its powers into dangerous areas, and that the risks exceed the benefits? And the suggestion is not 'no science' but a science that respects safety limits. So, for example, it might not experiment with genetic engineering that carries dangerous risks, simply because it also could have considerable benefits. I think we all as individuals make these kinds of judgements, and the reverse position that Keith seems to offer is that ANY research that POTENTIALLY might be useful has to be allowed, is surely a recipe for disaster, just as Chengde and Yingfang I think are saying in their poem.

Chengde Chen said...

Thank you Martin, you hit the nail on the head.I'm sure Keith would agree that science and technology has reached the level of destroying civilisation, whether through genetic engineering, nuclear technology or others. Given such possibilities of self-destruction, with time, wouldn't it happen one day? Just as a car on the road with the possibility of a fatal crash, the fatal crash is inevitable if it is driven long enough. This is a simple mathematics of probability, whether you like it or not.

Keith said...

I think that science typically acts responsibly, ‘respect[ing] safety limits’ through regulations that manage how scientific development progresses. Usually it’s society’s policymakers that put (science-informed) regulations in place, such as rigorous protocols for human testing of new — and initially risky — medical procedures.

Just one case in point, the world with unchecked small pox, malaria, tuberculosis, polio, tetanus, influenza, hepatitis A & B, diphtheria, mumps, measles, rubella, pertussis, rubella, and so forth would yearly be laying low many, many more tens of millions of people than they do.

In the early days of developing medical interventions for these illnesses, I suspect ‘the risks’ were very real, yet we didn’t allow those risks to instill fear and paralyse us. And, I suggest, the world is better off for our courage — a process replicated many times over during the course of modern human history. Sure, never pristinely error-free, of course, but with ‘benefits outweighing risks’.

Ditto for organ transplants; ditto for other surgeries, such as on the brain; and ditto for gene therapy with promise to prevent or cure various diseases, such as cancers, cystic fibrosis, hearth disease, hemophilia, AIDS, sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and so forth. (Ought we really allow these illnesses to forever take their toll on humankind rather than figure out how to intervene genetically?)

The payoff for intrepid, yet judiciously regulated, medical science has been remarkable, I suggest — as it has in innumerable other branches within the hierarchy of the sciences whose story is still being written.

Keith said...

‘I’m sure Keith would agree that science and technology [have] reached the level of destroying civilisation, whether through genetic engineering, nuclear technology or others’. Respectfully, Chengde, I’m actually sanguine: I don’t see genetic engineering and general artificial intelligence ‘destroying civilisation’; I don’t see existential threats (except, perhaps, climate change) lurking in nooks; I don’t see generalised dystopia hovering on the horizon.

So, for example, let’s narrowly take the (novel) coronavirus that’s in the poem’s subtitle. It’s massively disrupting much of societies’ economies and core daily behaviours, as well as people’s lives on all sorts of sociological levels. All the while, snuffing people out in increasing numbers. Sure, we could pass on science and sit by, letting the virus indifferently cull the population — but maybe that’s not the wisest, most moral, or most humane choice. Inertia may pose the greater threat.

docmartincohen said...

Mmm... Keith, when you list all the things that science is saving us from (!) you remind me of the point often made that what people die from is often entirely preventable. It is not a scientific soltuon that is needed but a social one. Take clean water, for example. We don't need scientists to tell us about bacteria, indeed, even long before people KNEW there were bacteria, they knew that drinking water was best found from a fresh source. Yet today millions of people continue to suffer water-related diseases.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I love this poem.

'science is such a car for mankind' is a powerful line. I don't think I agree with Martin, that the desideratum is 'a science that respects safety limits'. I think the desideratum is a new science, which doesn't need safety limits, but we have not been able to conceive it yet.

In broad outline, the scientific method today advances through screening things out. It works within closed systems, and is falsified within closed systems. I think a new science would work within an open system, which is the world, the universe.

Thank you Chengde and Yingfang.

David Machemer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Machemer said...

Good to read your works again, Chengde!

This reminds me of the man-made virus called Stucksnet that caused an Iranian centrifuge to destroy itself. No one claimed responsibility; some accused Israel, others the US. It almost made no difference. Once that genie was let out of the bottle, it was only a matter of time before another version of it came knocking again - maybe directed at you! Maybe at me!

Dangerous and irresponsible. Not the science - that's mere knowledge. It's the lust for power driving the science that is dangerous. Dangerous, short-sighted and reckless foolishness.

Thanks for this thought provoking take. Always a pleasure to stop and reflect...

tibou55 said...

thanks for the information and god with us against corona virus corona cases

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