Avoiding harm - how simple a duty is it?

The London High Court judgment on arsenic poisoning cases in Bangladesh explicity clears the way for affected people to claim compensation. Implicity, it raises other issues of far-reaching consequence

Published: Sunday 15 June 2003

-- THE London High Court judgement on arsenic poisoning cases in Bangladesh (see: Far-reaching verdict; see also: Hoping for relief, April 30, 2003) explicity clears the way for affected people to claim compensation. Implicity, it raises other issues of far-reaching consequence.

For one, the verdict delivers a stern message to international agencies working in developing countries: the necessity of being accountable for what they do in the name, and ethical promise, of public good. While the defendants, the British Geological Survey (BGS), claimed they owed no "duty of care" to the victim, the judgement ruled otherwise. The bgs could so claim because, its counsel argued, there was no relationship of "proximity" or "neighbourhood" to the victim. But as the judgement puts it, quoting another case, proximity is "merely a description of circumstances from which, pragmatically, the courts conclude that a duty of care exists". The court specifically pointed out that the BGS defence -- that it couldn't have foreseen the problem of arsenic in well water -- couldn't be seen in isolation. Besides being accountable, expert agencies must needs be answerable for the scientific claims they make.

Thus the judgement also sheds light on the larger -- and older -- question of the relation between scientific knowledge and the purposes it serves. If an avowed purpose of science is an improvement in the human condition, then of what value is research that is unable to avoid harm? If 'doing' science is always already a transaction between truth and society, then how are we to respond to reports that turn out to be untrustworthy? Is 'doing' science 'properly' never contaminated by falsifiability? Can science ever overcome this 'enemy' within?

Yes, it can. An agency undertaking a work that is of import to the public sphere must understand its expertise, and its desire to translate its knowledge into action, involves and affects thousands of people. By this count science's responsibility must be, not only to the abstruse realm of pipettes, burettes and proof, but also to the public domain where research is used. It is at this court that science will stand or fall: such a sobering stance might then allow it to truly celebrate its duty of care.

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