Nobel laureates cite top dangers to human survival -- overlook gravest one

Fifty Nobel Prize winners recently listed what they believe are the greatest risks to humankind. What I find significant is that most of them unwittingly pointed the finger at the unintended consequences of our science and technology.

Of the top 11 dangers the Nobel laureates flag, fully seven implicate humanity’s wayward innovations: environmental degradation caused by people; nuclear warfare; drug-resistant disease-producing organisms; the proliferation of fake news via the internet; artificial intelligence; powerful habit-forming drugs; and Facebook’s potential widespread invasion of privacy.

Being a physicist, I hasten to note this is not how it was supposed to turn out.

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I was captivated by Disney’s Tomorrowland. The monorail. Flight to the Moon. General Electric’s Carousel of Progress. The message being hyped to the theme park’s wide-eyed attendees was clear and simple: science was the savior of the world; it was going to make life easier, safer and better for everybody.

In many ways, science has delivered on the promise. I can now step into a plane and within hours be anywhere in the world. The lifespans of many people have increased dramatically because of improved sanitation and medical care. Automated space-borne envoys and sentries have treated us to stunning, close-up photos of our cosmic neighborhood and help protect us from space weather. And on and on.

Yet in my lifetime that very same scientific prowess has unsealed a legion of Pandora’s boxes with consequences that now threaten our very existence. For instance, iatrogenesis – any affliction caused by medical treatment gone awry – is now the third-leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. For victims, a state-of-the-art medical cure proved to be worse than the disease.

Clearly, science is both a blessing and a curse. But which will win out?

It’s a deep, pressing question I pose in my new thriller, “The Null Prophecy.” More importantly, it’s a question each of us needs to take seriously, as we plunge headlong into an immediate future defined by science’s latest novelties: the web, robots spyware, and genetic engineering.

Disturbingly, the question does not appear to have occurred to the Nobel Prize winners. Worse, despite everything, they still cling to the quaint, self-serving notion that scientists know best.

“Science is needed to address these problems and also to educate the public to create the political will to solve these problems,” says one laureate. “The blatant disregard for scientific opinion is going to lead to a worldwide crisis,” predicts another one.

What are some of the reasons ordinary people might dare to question the authority of scientists?

“We are usually from wealthy backgrounds,” says molecular biologist Peter Agre, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003. “We have investments, tidy homes and read books – they do not respect that.”

So, let us get this straight. According to these bright lights the only solution to the existential dangers science has helped to create is … more unbridled, unquestioned science.

For me, that remarkably arrogant mindset is, in fact, the greatest threat to humankind. And I’m not alone in thinking so.

Scientist and author Sir Arthur C. Clarke said it this way: “It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.

Or as the Book of Proverbs warns: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Michael Guillen  Ph.D., former Science Editor for ABC News, taught physics at Harvard. His novel, "The Null Prophecy," was published in July.