Science, Scientists, and the Third World

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Science, Scientists, and the Third World

by Maurice Bazin

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 3,  May 1972, p. 3, 5 – 7

Three years ago a few members of the American Physical Society startled their colleagues by wearing a lapel button which read “Science for the People”. The reaction of some older established members was: “What do you mean— the people? Am I not the people too?”

The question that I want to examine is how science relates to people, but with the avowed bias that science should be for the people, that is, for the benefit of all the people. Physicists should not feel threatened by such an idea, but on the contrary challenged into meeting the needs of human beings. In colonial days when we thought of humanity, as jean Paul Sartre eloquently pointed out, we thought that this world was inhabited by half a billion men and one and a half billion natives. I want to turn my attention to those three quarters of humanity whom we have totally neglected and which we call the Third World.

The Third World includes the poor in industrially underdeveloped countries, and the people usually of color of all former colonial areas: the people of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It does not include Russia and its satellites which in this numerical way of speaking form the Second World and, of course, it does not include the world which we study in Western Civilization— our world, which ruthlessly dominated the Third World up to the middle of this
century and still does in many areas.

When considering the relationship of physicists especially, to the Third World, we shall have to ask ourselves how much they participated in the domination and exploitation which was perpetrated upon that part of humanity.

“How does this come about,” someone will ask, “when in fact all we do is lecture about the atom and x-rays?” Indeed, it comes about because we lecture only about x-rays and the atom. Meanwhile, bombs are raining on the people of Vietnam, and electronic sensors sniff for life to destroy it. Someone has designed those gadgets; someone has perfected them with that very same knowledge about x-rays and electrons which we so freely provide. And I find one recent development particularly interesting. I am referring to cluster bombs. These big affairs which can kill everything living over a surface the size of a football field consist of a big bomb containing smaller bombs with pellets or fragments in them. In the past these fragments were made of metal. These could be detected by x-rays in Vietnamese hospitals. But somehow, somewhere, someone who must be a scientist developed pellets that could not be detected by x-rays. So those bombs today contain fragments which are made of plastic. They were not only designed with the proper density not to be detected by x-rays, but they were also designed with the proper mechanical shapes to maim. This is a direct application of the basic principles of physics to the achievement of genocide.

So, shall we stop lecturing about x-rays and the atom? Are they not part of the natural world which we find so thrilling to investigate? No, we don’t have to stop lecturing about basic principles of physics, but when we do talk about x-rays, we must talk about how they are used both for and against people. We must talk about airborne infrared detectors over the jungles of South America. This we have not done.

What we have done, what the world knows physicists have done, is put their expertise at the service of the Pentagon and its agencies for technological warfare. The main contribution of physicists has been through their participation in those think-tanks which perpetuate war more scientifically on Third World people. One of the best known of those think-tanks is the Institute for Defense Analysis and its specialized branch for the use of university intellectuals called the jason Division in which Murray Gell-mann was a participant and Marvin Goldberger the chairman. In years past the Institute for Defense Analysis organized summer institutes on specific aspects of physics for the use of the military. One of these had to do with the application of lasers. Everyone comforted me when I raised questions about the consequences of such co-operation: “Lasers could never be powerful enough to be of use to the military.” But somewhere on the California coast our high energy elite spent part of a summer thinking about lasers, and a few months ago there were laser-guided bombs used on the people of Vietnam. The sudden and well-publicized interest of those colleagues of ours in saving the flamingoes of the Everglades will not bring Vietnamese back to life. As far as the general attitude of the Institute for Defense Analysis towards the Third World is concerned, it can be best exemplified by the title of one of its reports which reads, “Research and Development Planning for Warfare in Underdeveloped Areas of the World”.

But our role as scientists has not only been through laissez-faire, by not confronting issues in our lecture halls, or through factual contributions to the destruction of human beings. It has also been, and much more importantly, through our intellectual cooperation in exporting the ideology of oppression and of domination, in spreading far and wide the myth of the inevitability of the separation of people into superior scientists and laymen, into classes of exploiters and exploited, into privileged elites and illiterate masses. The very few scientists from the first world who tried through misguided goodwill to participate in educational programs in underdeveloped countries have pointed out the futility of their efforts. Physics Today has published several reports about teaching in India or Pakistan in which the main conclusion is that those participating in teaching there accomplished very little. They were overwhelmed by the poverty they saw, the lack of connection between their work and the human misery around them, and the fantastic amount of elitism and personality cult among their privileged students and colleagues who utterly disregarded the needs of their people. But what our colleagues in those positions often did not realize was that their very presence as foreign experts, as revered sage men of nuclear science, tacitly justified the whole pattern of class domination. Far from combating the”basic scheme of social inequity, they used its existence as a justification for their own work. Thus, one finds Michael Moravcsik writing in Minerva about the reverence with which cab drivers in Lahore, Pakistan, regard the name of Abdus Salam; apparently not realizing that this kind of awe for the elites only serves to make the poor accept their own oppressed position more readily and thus allowing Mr. Salam and a few favored others to keep doing pure science and pure research in Trieste while a couple million East Pakistanis get murdered by the army.

Let us look at the content of the educational aid programs. In the early sixties, as soon as the Physical Sciences Study Curriculum (PSSC) was put together, it was exported to people who live in countries where eighty percent of the population is barefoot in villages with no electricity. One brings to teachers who are part of the local well-off bourgeoisie the PSSC course in which all examples instead of being taken from collisions of billiard balls are drawn from collisions of nuclear particles. In this manner one turns one’s audience away from its nontechnical culture and surroundings towards some remote, ultimate nuclear truths which they cannot touch and which they can only admire through the descriptions offered by the traveling mandarins dispatched from the seat of the empire. And this guarantees the state of powerlessness of those to whom one is teaching—their powerlessness in front of our technological and technocratic civilization. Students could not reproduce experiments with atoms. They could only admire the fact that we can do it. And they could only imagine us as living in a better world because we could do such experiments. The result of this straightforward exporting of the inaccessible glitter of modern science is that the best elements in the universities of underdeveloped countries emigrate; they get drained into our pure research programs, into our elite way-of-life; they succumb to our intellectual propaganda. even when we propagate it unconsciously. Those who have been brain-drained can only meet frustration if they ever go back to their country of origin. They have nothing to connect to there. They need contacts and the level of development which they met in the United States, and they end up in that state of total dependence in which they have to beg for money to buy American equipment. Through this elite type of education into which we have misled them, we have guaranteed their state of uselessness to their own country. And this is not a small phenomenon. It goes far beyond the pure numerical statistics of the brain drain although those in themselves are rather appalling: for instance, in the medical sciences, the number of doctors trained in Third World countries and brain-drained into this country per year is equivalent to the output of the fifteen largest medical schools in this country.

But one must realize that physicists do not necessarily participate knowingly in this great enterprise of cultural imperialism. We are in fact being used, being used by those who who really decide how money gets spent for foreign aid. Having been trained to consider science as socially neutral, physicists lack the political background to analyze what the social consequences of their actions are. On those pleasant trips to exotic lands the professor becomes an overall advisor, and he makes up proposals which are meant, he thinks, to solve everything. And here we meet the great arrogance of expertise. One of those proposals, put forward by Stevan Dedijer, suggests that every president of a newly independent nation have science advisors around him, a copy, I suppose, of the President’s Science Advisory Committee which has had its hour of glory in this country. Similarly, Michael Moravcsik, writing some years ago from his office at the Livermore laboratory, proposed to send two hundred U.S. scientists yearly to underdeveloped nations to help them. But what he seems to have forgotten is that through the brain drain phenomenon, each year, not two hundred, but two thousand scientists from underdeveloped nations are brain-drained into the United States and that figure has been increasing with time. Two hundred scientists are no payback for the initial plunder. Meanwhile, we, as scientists, continue to help propagate the myth that science is a solution to everything. As if when scientific research goes on in a country, the country will develop and its people will be free. This has been proven wrong and a United Nations study on the Second Development Decade puts it very simply: “The argument that all research ultimately benefits everyone is now known to be false.” Engaging on such a path only guarantees the existence of class structures by reinforcing the position of privileged ones over unprivileged ones. Science per se, without participating in the total challenge of the existing system of class exploitation can lead only to the reinforcement of that very system.

So we have been used. We have been used for what Eugene Skolnikoff calls “prestige and propaganda” in his book called Science, Technology, and American Foreign Policy and Skolnikoff should know: he was on the staff of the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Our best known names have been used for propaganda purposes, including Oppenheimer who in 1961 was taken on a glorious tour of Latin America sponsored by the OAS supposedly to explain the beauties of nuclear science. In fact, this trip, which made him front page news from Mexico to Brazil, was equivalent to the trip the first astronauts were sent on through underdeveloped countries to suggest, I suppose, the cosmic superiority of capitalism.

If we look at our condition in historical perspective, we can say that scientists, in our present civilization of oppression, a civilization which thrived upon the slave trade and pursues the destruction of Vietnam, have been playing the role which in earlier times was played by the religious missionaries. They were the intellectual smoke screen, the ideological cover-up for the most brutal enterprise of colonization. They were used to teach natives respect for the rulers. Scientists today in fact perpetrate the oppression of the Third World as they whirl around the world sounding the promises of technical nirvanas to come, wrapping into the wonders of science the capitalist social order and bourgeois ideology.

However, it is never too late to look at people of the Third World as real human beings rather than as a reservoir from which to extract the high potential students, from which to select a few, to mold them to our own technological image. It is, in fact, high time to consider that science for science’s sake is obsolete. And the American Association for the Advancement of Science must have its name changed to the American Association for the Advancement of Human Welfare. I wish also to say something at this point to the graduate students who presently feel the weight of the system’s utter lack of vision and purpose. I would like to point out to those who created the American Physicists Association, that they too fell into the bourgeois ideological trap of egotistical survival by fighting for narrow group interests instead of uniting with other victimized sectors. Such an association is again a group for the defense of privileges, and it will not radically change the social order; graduate students cannot win anything of consequence by taking on alone the oppressive system and asking for little personal accomodations within it.

So let us look together for what must be done. If we all agree in theory that science for the people is worthwhile, then let us put it into practice. Let us continue talking in our classrooms about the beauty of physics and science. But let us link it to its daily results and probe into the true causes of those results. Let us in our research aim towards those things which we know may serve people. There is presently a program going on in the biology department at the University of Chicago called “Science for Vietnam”, write and find out about it. Several people have also discussed attempting to use ultra sounds to detect those famous plastic pellets from the cluster bombs when they lodge themselves in Vietnamese flesh. And when you cannot get a grant to support such research, face up to it and to what it means; discuss it; speak up; live.

But no little program however well-intentioned it may be will be able to change the whole atmosphere in which we operate. We have to do much more. We have to change a whole consciousness. This is where the attitude of the Chinese comes in. This is where the idea of serving the people has to take a meaning-a precise, practical meaning. We all know now that in China the worker’s advice and the peasant’s criticism help the researcher to find useful paths, in an atmosphere of respectful equality. Our own motivations have to come from concern and respect for all human beings too; we have to abandon and then combat the ideo logy of our biology colleague—Charles Darwin; we have to combat his ethics of aggression and competition on which the exploitation of the Third World is ultimately based.

To make as clear as possible what a commitment to Science for the People means, let me illustrate it in the medical sciences. Let me compare the kind of flamboyant scientist which our Christian white world has produced, Doctor Barnard of South Africa and heart exchanges, to the doctors whom the Third World will remember, if anonymously. Doctor Barnard makes people believe that science is good because it can perform individualized theatrics {which ends up anyway with .the death of the patient) whereas what the Third World needs are medical people who will go to villages to teach people how to take care of daily health problems, how to arrange for proper sanitation, doctors who will travel thousands of miles, not on lecture tours but on large scale immunization campaigns. This does not require any show like that put on by Dr. Barnard in the Rio de Janeiro Stadium while most of his audience was suffering from intestinal parasites.

Do not think that as physicists, you can find excuses for not serving the people, including the people of the Third World, by pretending that they are too far away. The Third World is no further than the nearest slum, which probably surrounds your university. And at some urban universities, a few scientists have started community oriented programs to offer to the people technical tools which can put some power into their own hands. But such programs do not pop out of a vacuum, or from a sudden fever of good will. They depend upon understanding the political and social forces which created and work to maintain the ghetto. For, in the end, you will only be able to understand what is to be done when you have faced squarely the fact that there is no neutrality in human affairs and that, therefore, we all must face up to our responsibility.

This paper was originally given as a talk at the American Physical Society meeting in January 1972.


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