COMMENTARY: Trusting Knowledge

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and a computer consultant managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C.)

(UNDATED) The leading edge may be an exciting place to live, but it is a bewildering place to try to comprehend history.

Witness Monday’s (June 26) announcement that scientists had deciphered the human genome.

Some leapt to hyperbole, like meteorologists hot for a hurricane, calling this mapping of humankind’s genetic instructions as big as mapping the American continent, as big as the printing press, as big as anything humankind had ever done.

Some shrank into the terror that has greeted every scientific advance which required humankind to rethink itself. If discoveries like gravity and the solar system sent shivers through custodians of religion, imagine the impact of knowing this much about our inner workings.

President Clinton anticipated the religious world’s quandary. “Today we are learning the language with which God created life,” he said. Could be. Just as likely, however, will be an understanding of why we have kept God so small, so much a servant of our tribal and personal whims.

Some are already scrambling for commercial advantage, like panting Europeans wading ashore the New World, knowing that something this big has got to contain gold.

Many will read the headlines and conclude this is beyond their understanding. That probably won’t send them to hiding in huts, as earlier epic discoveries terrorized a people bred on superstition and rigid boundaries. But it could lead many to turn the page.

The challenge will be to remain engaged. Whatever level of hyperbole is justified, we don’t want to turn away from the complex and discover a decade from now that insurance companies bought the code and are using it to deny coverage to the “genetically-challenged,” or that “boutique DNA salons” are prolonging the healthy lives of the rich, or that bigots are using genome maps to justify “ethnic cleansing,” or that the arrogant are once again tinkering with human bodies in search of the “perfect race,” or that upwardly mobile parents have gone beyond playing Mozart to their fetuses and are adjusting the fetus itself in search of perfect offspring.

We will need to stay engaged. Surely we have learned by now that scientists are no more ethical or honest than the rest of us, as shown by the research institutes that routinely assured us cigarettes were safe. Surely we have learned that technological wizardry doesn’t confer a clue about real life, as shown by the descent of Silicon Valley into conspicuous consumption and monumental arrogance.

We know government officials can’t be counted on to seek truth, as opposed to personal and political advantage. We know that organized religion has a huge franchise to protect against threatening knowledge.

What we will need to do is exactly what we don’t know how to do, namely, conduct an open ethical dialogue on a broad scale among people of vastly different beliefs, prejudices and intellectual capabilities. We cannot count on a Washington or Jefferson to show us the way. This isn’t an age of noble spirits, but of giant egos looking for an edge. We the people have work to do.

We will need to push through the barrier of smarts, as in, “You can’t understand this, but I can, so trust me.” Very few of us will ever understand genetic mapping. But we can understand its implications, and those implications are a matter of public policy and community ethics.

We must push through the barrier of speed. We can’t expect science to slow down, nor should we attempt to require it. We need to speed up ourselves.

We must avoid seeking protections. We can’t count on those claiming to protect us through laws and regulations. They’re chasing votes, profits and secretaries. We have to speak for ourselves.

We must get beyond volume. Playground arguments tend to get resolved by shouting, or the grownup equivalent, controlling the media. For ethical dialogue to proceed, we can’t let ourselves get shouted down.

It is a time to trust knowledge, but to be wary of knowledge-controllers. It is a time to value dialogue, and to tell our self-appointed spokesmen to sit down. It is a time to see the New World for ourselves and not leave it to the rapacious troops of Cortez.


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