Sascha Vongehr is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the National Laboratory of Solid State Microstructures and the Philosophy Department of Nanjing University. This is his first article for the IEET.
In connection with his appointment as a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Dr. Patrick Lin writes that he is:
...skeptical about the technoprogressive enthusiasm for emerging technologies, and therefore I don’t consider myself to be a transhumanist. But they [IEET] reaffirmed their gracious invitation and welcomed a potentially dissenting opinion, which they recognize as important to keep everyone honest.
This openness of IEET is highly attractive to me, and I take encouragement from it in writing my first of several articles for the IEET blog. I will reveal directly what I try to arrive at with my contributions rather than going through a stealthy phase to enable confrontational content at a later stage.
My own interests overlap with those of many people involved with the IEET at several points:
1. Nanotechnology (ethics, dangers)
2. Cognitive Enhancement (also related to lifespan enhancement)
3. Philosophy of Mind (machine consciousness & person hood, simulation hypothesis)
4. Generalized Evolution (emergence, what the future holds, and what we can do about it)
Thus, I will prepare a series of four brief articles and will take your feedback in order to decide what to concentrate on in order to best meet the interests of the IEET audience. Today, I start with nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology has been my own field of research for 12 years now. It is one of the, if not the most important emerging technology, and it is widely believed to be the vital ingredient for many of transhumanism’s most desired transformations, be it slowing down aging, computer to brain network-neuron interfaces, or the development of ever faster (quantum) computers. Nano is still the big buzz word and I am afraid to be the uninvited party-pooper.
I do not so much take issue with the more apocalyptic dangers, such as horror scenarios of self-reproducing nanotechnology turning the whole planet into a gray soup of nanobots, or the total lack of co-evolution of our Pleistocene bodies with non-organic nanostructures. The more general problem in which people interested in the ethics of emergent technologies are surely interested in is that nanotechnology is widely acknowledged to be potentially dangerous, and so the discussion needs to address oversight. For example: Can one trust the nanotechnological field to be effectively self-monitoring, self-regulating?
Nano-porous micro-carbon sphere only 500 nanometers in diameter and with metal nanoparticles in its interior
We make such highly catalytic (bio-active) structures with help of a conventional kitchen microwave oven, 10^14 at a time, easily scalable. The metals involved here are from solutions with low concentrations (like in foods). Vitamin C can be the necessary so-called -reducer’ (turning salts into metals) and it occurs in high concentrations in many foods. We do not know why microwaves are necessary or what such compounds would do if digested, nor are there tests for unknown nano-compounds in microwaved food. (Image credit: author’s original research, all rights retained)
For that, it would be nice to have some indications for nanotechnology being an especially trustworthy field, open to criticism and rational discourse, upholding the scientific ideals, scientific method, and integrity. However, I cannot but report some very disconcerting insights: nanotechnology probably comes in last when racing after those parameters. We should be worried!
My disappointment with ethical aspects started early on in the new field (after leaving high energy particle physics) when I witnessed how experimentation is done and how the publishing game works in nanotechnology. These issues have only worsened over time.
However, nothing compares to how bad it turns out to be if you try your luck on critical work in this field. Looking back over the years, my personal experience adds up to a very odd picture: An almost strict anti-proportionality between the significance and scientific rigor of work on one hand and the ease of publication on the other.
Critical articles have been rejected over and over again. It took almost five years to publish on dubious statistical methods employed in a sub-field I know extremely well and have contributed interesting discoveries to. And no, it was not by finally passing proper peer review; but I am not at liberty to discuss details, except for that the journal is a Chinese one that nobody in the field reads.
Scientific work is seldom if ever rejected for actual mistakes, which may perhaps not surprise many readers after the recent obviously flawed claims about arsenic-based life forms made it all the way to Science, NASA, and many news front pages (these claims were obviously flawed due to the fact that macromolecular biochemistry depends crucially on the bonding angles it evolved with, so I for one rejected the work the very day it was announced).
Critical work is plainly unable to overcome potentially criticized people’s power over the whole publish-or-perish (what I like to call POP-science) process and so called -peer review’. Critical work is effectively made invisible, and blogs can at most catch the tiny tip of the iceberg.
Call me a masochist if you like, but we tried another project that directly showed flawed conclusions being drawn in specific published papers. Such criticism (at least that is supposedly usual practice) should be published in the same journals as the original work, of course. However, the sociological aspects constraining nanotechnology made sure that we needed two years in order to finally be able to publish it in a journal that, again, nobody in the relevant sub-field reads.
Sure, you are free to assume that our work is really bad, but consider that we encounter few problems in publishing much less rigorous or significant reports in prestigious journals. The most prestigious journal in the field of microscopy just published an article by us, and the work even spawned a book chapter; this work took a tenth of the time to complete and is far less significant than the two critical papers mentioned above, but we encountered no problems in publishing it.
Please do not get me wrong - I am not out to receive your pity. My point is strictly to show a moral deficit, especially in nanoscience. Conditions are worse than in medicine, or say quantum gravity, a field that I have also personally worked in. To do so, I am now on a third project of criticizing a widely hyped recent discovery and relating it with the nanotechnology culture of much flawed research and largely non-reproducible experimental -results’. Working in the field, I know exactly what I am talking about, and I have tentatively criticized some of it before on the Web (see, for example, here, here, and here).
In the newest project, we discuss in detail that it is especially fields like nanotechnology where experimental results lack reproducibility, and “theory” is often a pseudo-scientific tossing about of meaningless formulas. Scientific integrity as such (say concerning plagiarism, cheating, the value of honest statistics, importance of meaningful accuracy estimations and reproducibility) has been bred away by the nature of nanotechnology’s subject matter combined with a selective environment that is almost pure publish-or-perish (POP-science) culture.
In other controversial, ultra-competitive fields like high energy particle physics, POP undermines the science too, but reproducibility (for example) is still highly valued. The mathematics of a string theoretical paper can and mostly will be checked. In nanoscience, this looks very different.
Publish-or-perish culture turned science into an endeavor where deception is vital to get ahead, and nanotechnology ranks as one of the worst. A scientific field that has evolved this far into being a structure wherein deception is basically systemic cannot be trusted to self-regulate.
This is not a conspiracy theory - it is plain evolution and sociology. It’s not about bad people I abhor because they have crossed me. No, these are normal people getting on with their stressed lives. The idea to criticize or be at all concerned about potential dangers plainly does not cross their minds.
If significant reader interest should exist, I will develop this notion further here instead of letting it rot again for years in my drawer.
Sascha Vongehr is currently affiliated with the Philosophy Department of Nanjing University (NJU) and the National Laboratory of Solid State Microstructures, NJU.
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