The Mea Culpa Experiment

Is it time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for scientists?

| July/August 2002 Issue

For every positive result of scientific research there’s been at least one result that has spread destruction and terror throughout the world, according to Shiv Visvanathan, senior fellow at the New Delhi–based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. More often than not, Visvanathan tells columnist Tom Wakeford in (May 14, 2001), the victims live in developing nations. To atone for such atrocities, this firebrand anthropologist has proposed establishing a sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission for science, a commission based loosely on the post-apartheid model led by South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu. Unlike South Africa’s commission, Visvanathan’s panel would be global, exposing mistakes made by science and technology in the 20th century and forcing scientists to come face to face with the tragedies committed either by them or under their auspices. "Though it may seem shocking, for Professor Shiv, apartheid was all too appropriate an analogy for the suffering caused by 20th-century technology," Wakeford writes. "In both systems, a small minority was given a huge and unaccountable power over the lives of its fellow citizens. When challenged, both elites would justify their power by claiming that those they subjugated were too primitive and ignorant to be trusted." It’s a logical extension, then, Visvanathan argues, that like those accused in South Africa, the best way for technocrats to reform their future behavior is to come to terms with their past complicities. "Are we all asleep?" Visvanathan chided attendees at last year’s plenary session of the Congress of the Society for the Social Studies of Science at the University of Vienna. "All over the planet, especially in the majority world to which I belong, crimes are being carried out in the name of scientific and technological progress. Yet every few months conferences like this one come together and do little more than discuss their fashionably abstract theories. What has happened to our politics?" Visvanathan’s political convictions have always carried equal weight with his scholarship. A scientific anthropologist and human rights researcher, he has focused on demystifying modern scientific practice. Most recently, he has spoken and written extensively on his objections to what he calls "the nuclear celebration in India and Pakistan." His home base, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is a small think tank established in 1963 to examine the human implications of scientific research. While it is not likely that Visvanathan’s commission will gain the enthusiastic support of the international scientific community, Wakeford urges scientists to give the outspoken Indian’s ideas another look. "Maybe a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for science will initially be seen as an unwelcome interruption for our secluded scholars," Wakeford writes. "Yet it could easily become an honorable way for scientists, and other academics supposedly concerned with human progress, to admit their professions’ failings in the 20th century with a view to coming back down to earth."