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by Herb Fox
‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 1, February 1971, p. 21 – 22
Newspapers and TV throughout the country blazoned reports of “disruption” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) panel entitled “Is there a Generation Gap in Science. ” Edward Teller, ”father of the H-bomb” was extensively quoted. What they did not say was that the “gap” at the panel was between Teller and all the rest of the panel, who, from somewhat different points of view, were critical of Teller’s role and the present relationship of science to society. We are not clear as to what the press meant by “disruption” but no speaker was prevented from delivering his or her entire presentation. Representative remarks from the majority position are presented here.
Albert Szent Gyorgi, Nobel prize winner and senior member of the panel bemoaned the immoral use of science and, referring to science as “a cogwheel in the machinery of the modern state”, implicitly condemned the misuse of science to which Teller is so avidly dedicated.
Teller followed with remarks that departed from his original text and which, in some sense, were more political than he had originally intended-this clearly a result of our actions [see “1970 Chicago AAAS Actions: Review and Critique” p. 8.]
Richard Novick, geneticist from N.Y. Public Health Institute followed with a discussion of the growing awareness of scientific workers and others of the pervasive utilization of scientific knowledge and technological development for private use of a government/industrial/military complex in neglect of, and against, the common people. As evidence of this awareness, Novick offered,
” … many young and not-so-young people are finding it more and more difficult to continue their chosen careers within the social and political context of present day America; scientists are renouncing their profession, students are dropping out of their studies, and teachers are urging their students to do likewise. A great many others are contemplating leaving science because of deep conscientious misgivings over the consequence of their work.”
With respect to the nature of the growing awareness, he pointed out that,
” … the image of freedom, brotherhood, equality, and goodwill upon which, we are told, this nation was founded and by which it has heretofore succeeded in portraying itself has been demolished by its exposure as a sham.”
Novick then elaborated some of the many reasons for the failure of the American ideology. He cited as an example the contradiction between the ideology of individual freedom and the reality:
“The land and natural resources of our country are public property; their private ownership and unrestricted exploitation for private profit are anathema to the needs of the people.”
In addition to citing examples of the anti-people nature of the system in the category of the well-known destructive consequences of war activity, he also described the more-prevalent systemic consequences of American capitalism; for example:
“The pharmaceutical industry has consistently shown the highest profit margins of any industrial group in the country and this situation has been unaffected by the current business recession and by restrictions on the marketing of drugs imposed by legislation-hardly a record to be proud of for an industry whose primary concern is supposed to be serving the health needs of the people. How is this managed? By exorbitant profits, by price fixing, and by a promotion campaign that eats up 25% of gross income. This campaign, in order to promote unneeded drugs and to encourage the massive overuse of useful ones falsifies expectations, plays down side effects and creates a self-serving mass market by “educating” doctors and by publicizing prescription drugs in the lay press. A simple calculation based on advertising budgets shows that pharmaceutical companies spend approximately $5,000 per year per prescribing physician in this campaign. For example, I picked up a popular medical magazine the other day and found 28 drug ads: 11 for antibiotics, 7 for tranquilizers, and 10 for all other products combined. Is it any wonder that the overuse of psychoactive drugs is sweeping the country? Recent investigations have shown that half of the young people on psychoactive drugs come from families where the mother has been a long term user of tranquilizers.”
That the probems are systemic and not simply the consequence of evil people doing evil things is also brought out in his description of the dilernna of the researcher. What is
” … difficult to deal with is the realization by a scientist that even the most innocent and fundamental of his discoveries are likely to be exploited for private gain, forged into weapons, or used for other unsavory purposes, possibly far in the future. “
As an example he cited the “universal desirability of understanding the functional relationships between different parts of the human brain” or perhaps even “… of discovering where in the brain centers for the control of different kinds of behavior are located, … ” and yet
“The fact that these studies are financed heavily by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, and the existence of colonies of monkeys with brain electrodes at Holloman Air Force Base and Edgewood Arsenal, would, I feel certain, strike terror into the heart of any sensitive scientist who has had a hand in the basic discoveries … ”
Novick, unlike so many speakers at the AAAS, did not hesitate to draw the obvious conclusion from his analysis:
“While we as scientists must endeaver vigorously to make known our feeling on the uses of the results of our research, history shows that much more is required if we are to have a significant voice. It seems to me that if we as scientific workers were to join with other workers and organize ourselves at our places of work, we could be an effective social force to resist the subordination of technological progress to the purposes of private profit and war-could use our knowledge to support demands that the fruits of our research be used to serve real human needs.
Not only scientific workers but other workers also must learn to use their organizational power to prevent misuse’ of the end product of their labors-must learn to demand more of their employers than just increase in wages and benefits. It is high time, for example, that workers in automobile factories demanded that their companies produce safe, long-lasting, inexpensive cars and worked to create economic conditions such that the fulfillment of these demands would not cost them their jobs. It is high time workers in war plants demanded an end to the manufacture of bombs, tanks and missiles. It is about time that workers in paper mills and power plants demanded an end to the despoliation of water and air caused by their factories, and it is about time that workers in chemical plants refuse to produce napalm and phosphorus and herbicides.”
Fred Commoner, Harvard freshman, and Nancy Hicks, N.Y. Times science writer followed Novick. They were also generally critical of Teller’s position.
Stuart Newman of the University of Chicago began his talk by pointing out that the panel title “Is there a Generation Gap in Science”
” … is a misleading question that encourages misguided answers. There is certainly some kind of gap in science, but it is a gap between those whom science is used for and those whom it used against, between those who can appropriate the product of science to increase their profit and those from whom the profit is extracted, between those who get to participate in science and those who are excluded. This gap is based on concrete social relations, not in anything as transitory as age.
Nevertheless, the question is there to occupy our efforts, decreed from above, as are many other questions in scholarly and scientific circles. Problem for physics: how can we best design a nuclear bomb? Problem for chemistry: what is the most efficient defoliant for jungles, or herbicides for rice paddies? Problem for economics: assuming profits remain untouched, how much unemployment is necessary to combat x amount of inflation? Problem for sociology: assuming the sanctity of private ownership of industry, how can you best give laborers a sense of participation in their work?
The problems for establishment scientific research don’t just fall from the sky. They are part and parcel of a social and economic system fraught with irreconcilable antagonisms and contradictions. They are not the problems of the majority of the people, but those who want to keep the majority in line.”
Newman also referred to the quandry of concentration on basic research.
”Those who think they can avoid these quandries by concentrating on basic research should reflect on how even this has been degraded by the technological, cost efficient cast all U.S. science has taken on during the years of the peak and decline of the American Empire. Dr. Teller in his prepared statement mentioned that our real understanding of nature has not appreciably increased in the last 25 years, but he has obscured the causes by not placing this fact in a proper context. We have no theory of the atomic nucleus, but we can certainly meddle with it enough to make.great bombs. We have no theory of biological organization or development, but we’re on the verfie of genetic engineering. Quantum mechanics has no consistent realistic interpretation, but who cares, as long as we can build lasers for communication and counterinsurgency. If we can manipulate and technologize, to hell with the understanding, or so the funding would indicate, and so the students are taught.”
Like Novick, Newman didn’t hesitate to follow his own analysis. He introduced The People’s Peace Treaty with these remarks:
“At this point, since radicals are often accused of criticizing and offering no programs, I will read an example of an experimental proposal for a social scientific problem which is one that the majority of the American people want solved, but which a minority want to keep them from solving. This problem is being worked on by many people, some younger, some older, and to solve it it is necessary to have a scientific understanding of how our society operates. The problem is: how do we end the war in Vietnam?”
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