Topic: Science & Technology

Fatal Inquiry
(7/28/2004)

One scientific principle with ethical and philosophical implications is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which holds that nothing in nature can ever be measured with exact certainty, because the act of measurement itself requires the inquirer to alter what is being measured. Now comes evidence of a grim example of Heisenberg at work: a paper published in a recent Royal Society Biology Letters describes a study of penguins that banded the birds for tracking purposes. The study's results: banding kills penguins. This wasn't the first time a study had shown that those bands used by all the nice researchers we see on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic specials kill their subjects: sea birds and geese have also been killed by banding.

One wonders how long this has been going on. I, for one, always thought that scientists on Wild Kingdom were always mighty blasé about putting tags on birds and other animals. Heck, I've caught bandages on coat hangers myself. Didn't it occur to someone that, for example, a band on a penguin's flipper might impede his swimming?

One doesn't have to be an animal rights activist to harbor suspicions that some scientists are more interested in gleaning knowledge about animals than they are in the welfare of individual animals themselves. Killing creatures actively, passively or negligently in order to do nothing more than, say, determine their migration patterns seems to demonstrate warped values, not to mention a callous streak. Ethics Scoreboard recommends that before a method is widely employed to track an animal, scientists should insist on some hard data proving that the tracking method is safe.

The ethical use of power requires consideration of such things before the harm is done. The deaths of a few penguins and geese are hardly earth shattering, but the reason for these deaths says a great deal about why humanity cannot put too much trust in the ethics of science.

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