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SEVERAL RECENT HAPPENINGS, DISSIMILAR THOUGH THEY BE, describe the ethics of science. One involves controversy surrounding the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope. The other involves artificial intelligence and its contributions to human endeavors. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits and references concerning these.
Ethics—Definitions. Merriam-Webster gives the word “ethics” several : “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group,” “a set of moral issues or aspects (such as rightness),” and “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.”
All three of these have relevance with respect to science, and in particular, to our topics today and tomorrow.
Science—Definition. Two of Merriam-Webster definitions of “science” would seem to apply here: “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths” and “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.”
Breakthrough of the Year 2022. In his Editorial “Hard, Not Easy,” Science, December 15, 2022, H. Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief, says, “Science’s Breakthrough of the Year is the successful launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)…. JWST is a massive human achievement…. JWST holds substantial scientific promise.”
Why “JWST”? Thorp continues, “Unfortunately, the name of JWST has tarnished the story. James Webb was a former NASA administrator who presided over some of the agency’s biggest accomplishments. But he served at a time when a program was initiated to fire LGBTQ+ employees on the basis of their sexual orientation, and he stated to Congress that these individuals were ‘unsuited’ for employment at NASA.”
The Lavender Scare. Thorp writes, “NASA has tried to justify its decision to keep the name by providing evidence that Webb did not know that LGBTQ+ employees were purged from its staff. This is a distinction without a difference. The point is that Webb’s name is a reminder of the socalled ‘Lavender Scare’ and the homophobia in NASA and the scientific enterprise.”
The Lavender Scare was a mid-20th-century moral panic about homosexuals in the U.S. government. Its effects in government employment were even more horrific than the earlier Red Scare was to Hollywood; this time, homosexuality replacing Communism.
The Ethics of Naming. “How can JWST inspire future scientists,” Thorp asks, “when its name is associated with homophobia? Leading societies such as the Royal Astronomical Society and American Astronomical Society have decided to call the telescope JWST without spelling out the name. But every time this convention is explained, it will be a reminder of the exclusion that too many scientists experience every day.”
Other References. It’s a complex matter indeed, especially with regard to Webb’s involvement. See “NASA Shares James Webb History Report.” And, for a sense of a lamentable period in our country’s history, see the source material cited in NASA Historical Investigation into James E. Webb’s Relationship to the Lavender Scare, Final Report, by Brian C. Odom, NASA Chief Historian.
Surely our times remain complex, but we’ve come a long way.
Just as the JWST matter looked backward, tomorrow in Part 2 we’ll look forward to the latest in A.I. ethics. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023