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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Trying to Understand the ‘Rulers of the Earth’

By Cris Brockway

As a chemical engineer, I’ve grown accustomed to the conversational fallout that can follow from one simple, seemingly innocent question:

“So what’s your major?”

An honest response brings the inevitable gapes, smirks and quizzical queries. My personal favorite: “Wow, are you some kind of genius?”

No, not some sort of genius (although Mensa may say otherwise). I’m just a regular guy who goofed off in high school and picked a major to stay out of “undeclared limbo.” Then I worked, worked, slacked off and worked; many of you can identify, only with more or less slacking. To me, artists are geniuses; a peek at my artistic endeavors will reveal the source of my envy.

Artistic skills aside, scientists rule the earth these days?not in the dinosaur sense, we just make the world work. Consider your morning routine. Your alarm clock sounds, corralling you out of bed and into a hot shower. Electricity you take for granted allows this, perhaps from a distant nuclear plant or from new wind power technology.

You freshen up with toothpaste, soap and shampoo all lovingly prepared by research scientists and diligently produced by engineers. Also, in the city, your water has been treated before it arrives, and will be treated upon its departure. You pick up a handy magazine and are hypnotized by the diets, workouts and news backed up by the latest scientific studies, then bite into a piece of fruit that is most likely genetically modified. All before leaving your house.

Science has become a silent, ambient ruler in our culture: Everybody seemingly needs it but few question its unseen clergy of scientists and engineers.

The famously controversial Milgram obedience studies epitomize the scientist’s influence. In short, a “teacher” (a legitimate, clueless volunteer) is instructed to give shocks to a “learner” (an actor) whenever the learner responds incorrectly. A researcher observes from the teacher’s side, his goal to prolong the experiment with simple commands for as long as the nascent teacher will allow.

Even after the actor feigns heart pains, protests, and begins screaming at the shocks, an astonishing 60 percent of volunteers persist to deliver the maximum shock: 450 volts. All with the help of the insistent researcher. A quote from one of the participants reveals the power of the man in a white lab coat:

“There was I. I’m a nice person, I think, hurting somebody, and caught up in what seemed a mad situation . . . and in the interest of science, one goes through with it.”

If you can concede at this point the great influence of scientists, then you must admit that we have a huge responsibility to society not to abuse our power?but are scientists up to the task?

I recently revealed my identity to a man at the multimedia center. “Chemical engineering?” he said. “Why don’t you go into Styrofoam manufacturing? There’s a lot of money to be made in Styrofoam?” A lot of money to manufacture a non-biodegradable material that produces a potent toxin when incinerated? No thanks.

I would remember my class in engineering ethics as an undergrad back East?but there was no class in ethics. Ethics was given as much attention as a three-legged chair at the D.I. and consisted of one lonely chapter taught as a seeming afterthought.

I remember talking to a friend of mine at a large multinational monster of a company. “I haven’t talked to a non-engineer in weeks,” he confessed.

Scientific objectivity skewed by the promise of money? Engineers without ethics? And how can scientists serve society when separated from the mainstream? All these could leave you concerned, or feeling downright shaky.

Are classes and formal indoctrination needed to create responsible, moral scientists? I say no, and add that society shouldn’t expect a class or an authoritative chapter in a book to engender moral responsibility here?there is too much gray area. As usual, authority won’t be as effective as an effort on your part. Let me give an example.

Through the smirks, I know my friends appreciate my infantile attempts at drawing. They know that my effort, however naive, is an attempt to understand their work. Once understood, they can appreciate my input. Scientists work the same way, it’s just that few people seem to take an everyday interest in what we do. This gives birth to our most prominent affliction: many of us aren’t adept at explaining what we do, because we rarely get to share it with anybody but scientists. Just be patient with us. I promise that we’re better conversationalists than Milton from “Office Space.”

How to find us scientists? Unfortunately we don’t all wear ties that curl up like Dilbert the comic engineer. This is probably a good thing, for we’d never get dates, and consequently, never reproduce. Then one day, POOF! No more scientists. So how do you find us? We’re actually your friends, your classmates, your crazy uncle with the unruly hair at the family cookout. We’re outside on sunny days trying to draw to the best of our abilities. You’d be surprised.

You’d also be surprised how far earnest interest can get you. Once you’ve earned our respect, you can start asking the tough questions:

What would you do if your professor needs you to do some research that you’re morally opposed to?

Or your future employer asks you to illegally dispose of toxic waste or risk losing your job?

Or you were offered money to lie about scientific findings?

We ask questions all the time- now it’s your turn. See your local scientist. Find an engineer near you. Ask us the tough questions, the ones we can’t back up with data. It may just be the best thing you’ve done for yourself and the world.

Cris welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].

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