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Diplomacy: What's Science Got To Do With It?

by KC Cole
Feb 6, 2010

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We all know that the technology produced from scientific research can make international conflicts more deadly than ever. But can science help stop war?

It's not something people think a lot about. Over the past few days, however, I've been participating in a conference on Science Diplomacy and the Prevention of Conflict sponsored by the USC Annenberg School's Center on Public Diplomacy, learning about scientific collaborations involving waring nations (the SESAME particle accelerator in Jordon), as well as international projects aimed specifically at improving public welfare (the UCLA Center for International Emergency Medicine).

Everyone seems to think the time is ripe for science diplomacy, especially following Obama's appointment of three international "science envoys" (unfortunately, none of them women. Hilary? Hello?)

At first, I wasn't sure I had much to contribute to such a meeting, but in preparing for my panel, I realized I'd probably spent most of my life involved in science diplomacy in one way or another. Having skipped most of high school to hang out at the United Nations, I later stumbled into physics by accident and realized that the subject was ripe with philosophies and ideas that offered much more hope for peace than anything I'd learned in my political science courses. In fact, the subject of my recent book, a biography/memoir of the late Frank Oppenheimer, is almost entirely about science diplomacy.

Having had a hand in creating the first atomic bomb (Frank sometimes joked he must be the "uncle" of the atom bomb, because his brother Robert is known as the "father"), Frank, like so many other physicists, spent much of his later life looking for ways to prevent conflict and promote understanding. These ranged from perhaps silly ideas such as "goodie drops" on our enemies (a version of the Marshall plan) to profound and useful concepts taken directly from science. Frank called these the "sentimental fruits" of science because they change the way we feel about things.

For example: our understanding of evolution tells us we are closely related not just to each other, but to every living organism; the environment is us, and we are it. Bacteria make up as much of our bodies as do our own cells. Our DNA is riddled with "foreign" viruses. Shouldn't this knowledge have some potential to make us feel differently about the way we treat other living things, especially other people?

Science can eliminate many of the irrational fears that drive the worst of human behaviors. We no longer burn mentally ill people at the stake for being possessed by demons, or slay maidens to change the course of wars or weather. (Can science find ways to eliminate our often irrational fears of each other?)

We've learned through science that everything in the universe is always changing—even stars are born and die—making the thought of progress at least possible.

I've referred to some of these ideas before in this blog—for example, the realization that nature on the smallest levels is full of dualities: the opposite of one truth is not necessarily heresy; it may be a matter of asking a different question.

And there's much much more: Looking through the lens of symmetry, we can find out what differences don't make a difference—what's truly fundamental about all human beings—what's really worth fighting for in a world where asking for a fight can mean asking for the end of civilization.

In fact, mathematicians and economists already use various kinds of symmetries to figure out what's "fair," what diplomatic solutions might have a chance to work because they don't leave either side feeling cheated.

Science depends on honesty, transparency, good communication—all useful diplomatic tools.

Science also depends on the art of persuasion—convincing a jury of one's peers with evidence and argument that your ideas are correct. Unlike coercion, which requires only power, persuasion requires knowledge. Societies based on coercion don't value knowledge. Ones based on open inquiry do.

Just as scientific knowledge has led to useful inventions that protect us from disease and the elements (antibiotics and ships, for example), Frank thought scientific knowledge of social dynamics and human behavior might help us come up with "social inventions" to protect us from the worst of ourselves. A stop sign is a social invention, as is a family, a court of law, a handshake, the United Nations, and, of course, this conference itself—which took place at perhaps one of the greatest social inventions of all—the university (the University of Southern California, in this case.)

Of course, this blog is also a social invention, made possible by science, (as is NPR, I might add) and I have no doubt that blogging, like twittering and other social media, will be put to sound diplomatic use. They already have.

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