Science needs to be more dangerous

Science needs to be more dangerous
Without taking risks, science won’t solve big problems. Credit: FastLizard4/Flickr

Few would argue the world isn't facing enormous challenges: human population growth and the associated demand for resources, mass extinctions or – perhaps the biggest of all – global climate change.

We often look to science to help provide solutions. But if science is to succeed in doing so, society may need scientists to take more risks, think outside the box and, dare we say it, think "dangerously".

We live in a world that is increasingly risk averse, obsessed with risk management and harm minimisation. This results in bizarre decisions such as children not being able to play tag for fear of injuries. Some think that such creates conservatism in funding bodies that are more likely to fund safe research with assured outcomes rather than high-risk projects.

But what exactly do we mean by thinking dangerously? In short, scientists need room to propose ideas that could seem too far-fetched or controversial at first glance, such as introducing elephants to Australia to manage weeds.

What use are such dangerous ideas?

Oscar Wilde perhaps put it best:

An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.

Dangerous ideas always stimulate fresh thinking, sometimes with profound outcomes.

Science needs to be more dangerous
The Thylacine stands as an icon of extinction and martyr to the conservation cause. Should de-extinction succeed, extinction as a concept will be extinguished- what will conservation stand for then? Credit: Australian Museum

To illustrate we only need look at perhaps the most dangerous idea of all time, evolution via natural selection, simultaneously proposed by Charles Darwin and the oft forgotten and desperately unfortunate Alfred Russel Wallace. Their idea changed the very course of human history, in how we view the relationships between Earth's many millions of different inhabitants, and our own place within it.

The most famous example of dangerous science being punished could be heliocentrism, originally proposed by Galileo. Galileo paid a high price for his theory about how Earth and other planets move in relation to a largely stationary sun. Tried by the Inquisition, he was found guilty of being suspected of heresy and spent his remaining days under arrest.

Fortunately we've moved on from then but dangerous thinking in science is still attacked. One must only look at the way the science of climate change, and indeed scientists, are often attacked.

Or consider the response to Mark Davis' recent dangerous idea that species should be judged more by their function than their origin because some have positive ecosystem impacts. More than 140 scientists replied in outrage at the suggestion that we should in any way relax efforts to control alien species, which have been devastating to so much wildlife around the world.

Not dead yet

Thankfully, despite the rise of occupational health and safety, the dangerous idea is not quite dead yet. A recent symposium run by the Royal Zoological Society of NSW set out to propose dangerous zoological ideas. They wanted ideas that could turn out to be right, wrong or irreverent, but most certainly not boring, safe and uninventive.

A full list of the ideas proposed is here and a flavour of the meeting and discussion here. But some of the most stirring presentations were as follows:

Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook suggested if we want to maintain our energy demands and lifestyles, but still also conserve biodiversity, we must have in Australia's energy mix. Did you know that a person's entire lifetime's worth of energy consumption is contained in one golf ball-sized piece of uranium and this has zero emissions? The same amount of energy in coal would be equivalent to the weight of 800 elephants worth and 3,000 elephants worth of emissions! That's some telling maths, even for the most ardent critic of nuclear power.

Ian Wallis told everyone, most notably Mike Archer, that vegetarians certainly do not have more blood on their hands than omnivores. Why? Because two of the main and increasing sources of protein consumed by humans, pork and chicken, require crops to be produced for their production. So even before you've tucked into a drumstick or piece of bacon, you've indirectly consumed significant amounts of vegetable matter. Vegetarians by comparison just go straight to the source.

Euan Ritchie (along with Corey Bradshaw again, clearly a very "dangerous" man) proposed we tear down the dingo barrier fence and implement different approaches for predator management and pest control, including the use of guardian animals. Fences, poison and bullets will not solve our pest management issues and conserve biodiversity long-term; in fact it could make things worse. What many people still fail to realise or acknowledge is that species don't operate in isolation from others within ecosystems. So why do we continue to manage species as if they do? We need to try other approaches, such as rewilding and reintroductions to restore broken ecosystems.

Peter Banks critiqued de-extinction and argued that without extinction there's no basis to conservation. In another presentation on the same theme, Thom van Dooren discussed how humans mourn the extinct, and that this mourning is vital to conservation action. If humans think endangered species can be brought back by science and a techno-fix approach, what motivation is there to conserve anything? Banks' dangerous idea is that iconic extinct species such as Thylacines must remain extinct. They do more for conservation dead than they would if they lived again.

Desperate times need bold ideas and bold measures, even potentially "dangerous" ones. There are risks involved, but there are risks also in not being bold and willing to try different things too, especially when the payoffs may be huge. Science is about discovery. If we want to realise its full potential we must start being more adventurous.

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This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).
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User comments

Nov 21, 2013
" indeed climate change scientists, are often attacked."
Not as viciously as those who don't agree with climate change scientists.

One of the most dangerous ideas in history is that human beings have natural rights that are inherent and unalienable.

Nov 21, 2013
"Not as viciously as those who don't agree with climate change scientists." - RyggTard

I also attack Flat Earther's, Young Earthers, Hollow Earthers, and Bigfoot Hunters, and Chupakabra breeders with equal zeal.

They all share a common trait of profound willful ignorance with you Global Warming Denialists.

Nov 21, 2013
"try solving the Fuku Flu disaster" - COCO

No one ever predicted that all the king's horses, and all the king's men wouldn't be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

For some the lesson is impossible to learn. Child's poetry to other.

Nov 21, 2013
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Nov 21, 2013
If you want danger just eliminate all the safety regs at research sites which have been enacted since the 1970s. Scientists will begin frying and asphyxiating and irradiating and exploding all over again. Then only guys like bruce willis and dolf lundgren (and marie curie) will be scientists.

I forgot these guys

Nov 21, 2013
Dolph has a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering

Nov 22, 2013
Yah and here's another interesting juxtaposition

"Gregory Walter Graffin, Ph.D, (born November 6, 1964) is an American punk rock musician, college professor, and author. He is most recognized as the lead vocalist, songwriter, [atheist,] and only constant member of the noted Los Angeles band Bad Religion, which he co-founded in 1979. He also embarked on a solo career in 1997, when he released the album American Lesion. His follow-up album, Cold as the Clay was released nine years later. Graffin obtained his Ph.D. at Cornell University and has lectured courses in life sciences and paleontology at the University of California, Los Angeles."

-Punks invented the mosh which is pretty dangerous.

Nov 24, 2013
Over unity sciences are attacked. Gravity motor sciences are attacked. And every other method of combining motor and over unity systems of analysis. They are attacked by corporations and governments who would loose centralized power and control systems.

Transmutation sciences and research are attacked. Attacked by those who back and are involved with military and black ops technology exclusivity desires.

Alternative medicine is attacked. Attacked by big pharma, and associated systems of societal control.

Psychic research is attacked, even with it's 1000's and 1000's of scientifically done and peer analyzed works.


Most of these above things are connected. Connected in what they reveal, at their base scientific level, and connected in what components of societal control they break, and threaten.

Open minded and honest in-depth analysis of these fields does indeed illustrate points of validity that connect them to one another, in the sense of fundamental physics.

Nov 24, 2013
All of these things are connected in that..

... 1000's and 1000's of scientifically done and peer analyzed works.

all prove they do not exist, so it's not really very surprising they get attacked.

Nov 24, 2013
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