Science education

Do guns kill people?

Recently I posted an article on some forums entitled “Laws of physics and chemistry don’t kill people, guns do.” The sole purpose of the article was to underline the crucial – and often neglected – difference between science (laws of physics and chemistry) and technology (guns), which the famous expression “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” muddles. Some readers took the title literally and reminded me that “a gun cannot decide to get up off the shelf, go out looking for a victim and then pull its own trigger.”

Guns 4852543Why is it important to stress the difference between science and technology? Because many critics of science mix up the two, correctly associate value (good or bad) to technology, but incorrectly conclude that science itself is good or bad … and it is the badness that is emphasized by the critics. Please look at the section titled “Science and values” of this article, where you’ll see how

a social critic of science uses “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to conclude that the science that goes into the construction of guns is evil.

To shed light on the discussion, let me change the word “gun” in the popular phrase:

  • Cars don’t kill people, people kill people. (Because a car can be used to kill.)
  • Lasers don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Baseball bats don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Cliffs don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Pillows don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Plastic bags don’t kill people, people kill people.

The list is endless! But why is “gun” singled out? Because of the purpose and intention of the technology that created it.

Let me also clarify the second half of my title. Not all guns kill people. BB guns don’t. Guns with rubber bullets don’t. Guns aimed at the victims’ buttocks don’t. But none of these guns is the intention of either the famous phrase, or my title.

The intended gun drives a bullet massive enough and fast enough to carry sufficient amount of kinetic energy whose impact with a specific vital tissue can terminate the function of that tissue.

If the same amount of energy is carried by 100 kilograms of soft cotton, it will not be fatal – in fact, it may even be enjoyable! The question boils down to the principle of the conservation of energy, which is the science behind all the examples considered above, and how it is used: It is the conversion of the kinetic energy of the fallen person to the potential energy binding the molecules of the skull, bones, and other parts of his/her body upon impact with the ground at the foot of a cliff that causes the death of the person. Similarly, it is the large potential energy needed – by the victim – to raise the pillow – pushed down by the strong murderer – and allow the restoration of the kinetic energy of the lungs pumping oxygen to the heart and other vital organs that can prevent the death of the victim.

If the scientific notion of energy is behind all of the examples above, then the difference between a gun and a car is the purpose behind the technology that goes into their construction and determines how that energy is used. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, lasers, pillows, plastic bags… were not invented with the purpose of killing. Guns were invented specifically to kill.

That is the message of the title of my post. That is the message that we have to send to the social critics of science. And that is the message the public has to receive to encourage it to support science, while making it aware that science could be used in good and bad technology.

 

Recently I posted an article on some forums entitled “Laws of physics and chemistry don’t kill people, guns do.” The sole purpose of the article was to underline the crucial – and often neglected – difference between science (laws of physics and chemistry) and technology (guns), which the famous expression “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” muddles. Some readers took the title literally and reminded me that “a gun cannot decide to get up off the shelf, go out looking for a victim and then pull its own trigger.”

Why is it important to stress the difference between science and technology? Because many critics of science mix up the two, correctly associate value (good or bad) to technology, but incorrectly conclude that science itself is good or bad … and it is the badness that is emphasized by the critics. Please look at the section titled “Science and values” of this article, where you’ll see how

a social critic of science uses “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to conclude that the science that goes into the construction of guns is evil.

To shed light on the discussion, let me change the word “gun” in the popular phrase:

  • Cars don’t kill people, people kill people. (Because a car can be used to kill.)
  • Lasers don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Baseball bats don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Cliffs don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Pillows don’t kill people, people kill people.
  • Plastic bags don’t kill people, people kill people.

The list is endless! But why is “gun” singled out? Because of the purpose and intention of the technology that created it.

Let me also clarify the second half of my title. Not all guns kill people. BB guns don’t. Guns with rubber bullets don’t. Guns aimed at the victims’ buttocks don’t. But none of these guns is the intention of either the famous phrase, or my title.

The intended gun drives a bullet massive enough and fast enough to carry sufficient amount of kinetic energy whose impact with a specific vital tissue can terminate the function of that tissue.

If the same amount of energy is carried by 100 kilograms of soft cotton, it will not be fatal – in fact, it may even be enjoyable! The question boils down to the principle of the conservation of energy, which is the science behind all the examples considered above, and how it is used: It is the conversion of the kinetic energy of the fallen person to the potential energy binding the molecules of the skull, bones, and other parts of his/her body upon impact with the ground at the foot of a cliff that causes the death of the person. Similarly, it is the large potential energy needed – by the victim – to raise the pillow – pushed down by the strong murderer – and allow the restoration of the kinetic energy of the lungs pumping oxygen to the heart and other vital organs that can prevent the death of the victim.

If the scientific notion of energy is behind all of the examples above, then the difference between a gun and a car is the purpose behind the technology that goes into their construction and determines how that energy is used. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, lasers, pillows, plastic bags… were not invented with the purpose of killing. Guns were invented specifically to kill.

That is the message of the title of my post. That is the message that we have to send to the social critics of science. And that is the message the public has to receive to encourage it to support science, while making it aware that science could be used in good and bad technology.

 

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