AAAS: Action and Reaction

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

AAAS: Action and Reaction

by Mary Ella Feinleib, Debbie Katz, Joe Lanza, & Bob Park

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 2,  March 1973, p. 15 – 19

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAA$) is one of the largest organizations of scientists in the country. Its weekly magazine Science has some 150,000 subscribers. For the past four years Science for the People has held actions at the annual AAAS meetings.

The fundamental aim of all our actions this past December was to point out to the general AAAS membership the involvement of establishment science with the oppressive, racist policies of the U.S. government. We were careful to distinguish between the unwitting complicity of scientific workers like ourselves who make up the vast majority of the AAAS, and the deliberate participation of the few who make up the scientific power structure. Since the emphasis of this year’s meetings was social “science” and behavior control, it didn’t require much stretch of the imagination to see the political content of the research presented.

This year’s Science for the People actions fell into three major categories:

  1. Individual interaction with hundreds of AAAS members via literature distribution and informal discussion (this, incidentally, is a simple but highly effective approach. Through private conversation many of the scientists expressed not only interest in our aims, but substantial agreement on the fundamental issues involved.)
  2. Attendance at selected AAAS sessions to raise incisive questions about political implications and to encourage the rest of the audience to do the same.
  3. Organization of an anti-war rally.

Turning the Tables

On Tuesday, December 26, 1972, 25 Science for the People persons set up a literature table in the registration area of the Sheraton-Park Hotel and were promptly ordered to remove it by a AAAS official. This was their first action in accordance with this year’s hard-line policy against Science for the People. In the previous three years, space had been provided for us. When we refused to remove the table, three other AAAS officials repeated the order during the course of the morning. One official even suggested our moving outside—into the rain. Later we were offered space in an obscure area, two floors below. Again, we refused, whereupon Richard Scribner, AAAS meeting manager, informed us that we would be evicted by the police if we didn’t leave. However, we gathered so much support from AAAS members who were passing through the registration area that the officials chose not to move against us that day. They did leave behind a prowling team of hotel detectives and D.C. police to keep an eye on us.

The table was set up the next morning and immediately the harassment began anew. At 1:30 p.m., while a large crowd was watching the NARMIC slide show on the automated air war (which had been set up next to the Science for the People literature table by the Committee for Social Responsibility in Engineering), hotel detectives moved in and pulled the plug, leaving startled AAAS members viewing a blank screen. Immediately, AAAS official Howard Greyber stepped forward with several D.C. Special Operations police and proclaimed: “I respectively ask you to withdraw in an orderly manner.” A very heated debate then followed before an ever-increasing audience. It soon became clear to the AAAS officials that they were gaining nothing by this approach and so the signal was given and the police moved on the table.

The people standing in front of the table were pushed aside but resisted. A tug-of-war ensued. Several of these people were grabbed by the police but then were pulled away by the others. A general melee developed. Many of the police were brutal during the arrests. People were knocked to the floor and eyeglasses were smashed. In particular, one policeman was seen pummeling a person with one hand while choking him with the other. Then he smashed this same person with a walkie-talkie while tossing him into the wagon. In all, five Science for the People people were arrested inside the hotel and three others outside as they continued to fight the police.

Because of our strong stand, the literature table remained in place and was staffed until well into the afternoon, when a dozen riot-equipped D.C. police arrived and deployed themselves for action. At this point the Science for the People group in the area elected to take down the table and return to the hotel to prepare for that night’s activities.

People in the AAAS were outraged at the strong-arm tactics of the officials. Even a subsequent article in Science points out the absurdity of the AAAS’s decisions.

Pressured by AAAS members’ opinions, by the hotel management, and even by the D.C. police (who had more important concerns), meeting editor Scribner was forced to set aside space for Science for the People just below the registration area in the hotel. This, then, formed our home base for the literature table and for the NARMIC Slide Show. We talked with hundreds of people and sold much literature.

People showed special interest in a beautifully designed introductory pamphlet summarizing our analysis of the AAAS program, which included a “Who’s Who” of the meeting superstars. This sixteen-page handout was prepared by the Washington Science for the People group, with contributions and suggestions from people in Ithaca, Stony Brook, Boston, and Chicago.

Open Season in the Sessions

At past AAAS meetings Science for the People’s presence was tolerated, and as a result we could plan actions, workshops, and countersessions on positive alternatives to the system with a minimum of hassle. This year our creative efforts were handicapped because of the harrassment by the AAAS officials. Moreover, the fact that the Science for the People group consisted of mostly new faces meant that additional time was spent in getting our political heads together. Further, there was the usual problem in the sessions of some audience alienation. The structure of the sessions was generally so rigid and demeaning that when Science for the People did try to interrupt the format we were occasionally shouted down by the audience, some of whom felt that it was better to be silent and listen than to challenge the speakers when they made obviously ludicrous points or rambled on endlessly. A sampling of the sessions follows.

Ethical, Legal and Social Issues of Behavior Control

This session dealt with the ethical issues which arise from attempts to control behavior by psychosurgery, electrical stimulation of the brain, drugs, and psychological therapy. Science for the People went to this session with the intention of drawing attention, whenever necessary, to the political implications of these technologies. As it turned out, the audience, the panel, and even the chairperson were all quite receptive to Science for the People’s ideas and comments. Intensive questioning of the speakers yielded valuable political stands on behavior and even the speakers pointed out that psychosurgery could very easily be used as a tool of oppression by the government.

Conceptions and Alleviations of Aggression and Violence

This session, in contrast, did not exactly welcome Science for the People’s ideas. About 15 of us attended this meeting, which was chaired by Jerome Singer of Yale and starred Amitai Etzioni (Professor of Sociology at Columbia University) with his speech on “Public Policy and Curbing Violence”. The meeting dragged through the first three speakers and the questioning was spirited during and after the prepared remarks. Then Etzioni tried to tell the audience that the way to curb violence was to crack down on the deviant elements in society. We of course rejected this outright, and started a barrage against these ideas. His proposal for a two-way closed circuit cable TV spy system was attacked by the audience as a highly repressive tool which ignores the conditions that produce violence. The questioning and responses were hot and heavy. During one question Etzioni said “If you don’t like those two-way cable systems (TV, telephones, etc.) you can always unplug them!”. This remarkable statement drew a cry of anguish and disgust from the audience and the questioning grew even more intense. In the end Etzioni was discredited and the political acumen of the audience and speakers was substantially aroused.

Racist “Science” on the Run

On the fourth day of the convention Daniel P. Moynihan (assistant to the President on Urban Affairs and Executive Secretary on the Council on Urban Affairs, 1969- 71, recently appointed Ambassador to India) and James Coleman (AAAS section vice-president and author of the Coleman Report) were scheduled to speak on “Public Policy and Social Science”. We decided to liberate this session so that these pseudo-scientists who engineer and justify government policies could be challenged. We printed up a leaflet describing what Moynihan and Coleman had done, we encouraged people to attend the session, and we even suggested questions that Moynihan and Coleman could be asked. An excerpt from the leaflet reads as follows:

…At the request of the government Moynihan wrote a report ( 1965) which declared that the poverty in the Black ghetto is due to weakness in the family structure which produces psychological damage to Black children. The main weakness is supposed to be a tendency toward fatherless homes and matrifocal families. But previous careful studies of fatherless families and children did NOT reveal any significant peculiarities of childrearing practices or any significant increase in mental illness or disorientation. Nevertheless, President Johnson quoted the report shortly after it appeared. It became a “scientific” justification for cutbacks in already meager services. More recently, Moynihan has been endorsing theories of genetic racial inferiority as well.

James Coleman, an AAAS section Vice-President, is the author of the well-known Coleman March 1973 Report, which claims that improved funding of Black schools would not improve educational achievement. [Ed. note: This implies genetic inferiority of Blacks.] He reached this amazing conclusion by refusing to compare the educational budgets of rich and poor communities, on the grounds that to do so would “contaminate” the class and race variables. His report, widely hailed by the press as the definitive work on education, has become the standard excuse to justify reduced school spending. Coleman’s “report” has thus contributed to the further deterioration of schools and to the increased unemployment of teachers.

When we arrived at the meeting room, we found it sealed off. Apparently, the AAAS feared that Science for the People might get in beforehand and rearrange the seating as we did at the Bundy session last year (see Science for the People, Vol. IV, no. 2, March 1972, p. 6). The crowd began to gather and soon there were 300 or so people milling around outside the room. Several members of Science for the People used this time to explain our position and to hand out leaflets. Meanwhile the crowd became so large that a room divider had to be taken down so that everyone could fit into the hall.

Moynihan, who was supposed to chair the session apparently decided to avoid our questioning—he didn’t show up at all. The substitute chair was Amitai Etzioni (who had by this time called Science for the People “Marxist-Leninist fascists”) After a short period of shouting, steamroller chairing and a sham vote, Etzioni’s proposal prevailed: Coleman and his two discussants would present their views and then the audience could ask questions. This structure of course assumes that what the speakers choose to say is more valuable than what the audience wants to know. Coleman spoke his piece. Out came all sorts of notions on how researchers ought to tailor their work so that it can better serve the government’s needs. He said that “disciplinary” research was to have “no social or humanitarian values” and was to be treated as “pure” or “neutral”. By contrast, he blatantly stated that “policy” or applied research was supposed to be designed to achieve the ends of the policy maker who paid for it. He saw the researchers as workers, busily gathering up factual information—then “the interested people of the world of action” should put the pieces together and figure out the overall result of the research. In our opinion, Coleman’s proposal for streamlining the policy research apparatus attempts to develop the worst features of that system: to make it an even more effective instrument of oppression for those who hold power.

The questions that were asked were very pertinent and pinpointed many of the faults in Coleman’s research. In addition to Science for the People questions, many other people, including a school psychologist cited errors in Coleman’s methods of getting data for the report. As the questioning became more intense, many of the people who had come to hear Coleman and Moynihan began to understand why we thought a confrontation was in order. One man who was about 50 years old said that he now realized that our objective was not just to break down sessions (as the AAAS would have others believe) but to rebuild them. As a result of our actions at this session, many middle-of-the-road AAAS members began to see what we were about.

Peace Research at the AAAS

A real down of these meeting was a session on “Radical Perspectives in Peace Research”, in which we were asked to participate. For any of us who doubted that format affects content, this session was a vivid demonstration. Here was the one session from which we had expected a good deal, but what we witnessed seemed to be a parody of all the regular sessions we had criticized. One after the other, well-intentioned but long-winded speakers stood at the microphone delivering monologues on abstruse approaches to “radical” research. The audience sat dutifully; some waited their turn to ask the brief question there might be time for, others dozed off, and gradually, one by one, they began to wander out, looking discouraged. No doubt there were many who felt guilty about being bored—blaming “very important” stuff—and concluding that they just aren’t cut out to be radicals. The proceedings finally came to life with laughter and applause when the Science for the People speaker prefaced his remarks with a promise: “I’m going to speak for four minutes.” Afterwards a number of people sought us out and we had some rewarding political discussions. The experience was a sad reminder that good ideas cannot be communicated effectively within the existing framework of AAAS sessions and rather than participating politely in them we will have to continue our attempts to change them.

Fighting Sexism through the AAAS Bureaucracy

Among the more promising sessions at this year’s meetings were some of those dealing with issues of women and science. These sessions tended to be chaired by women and to feature women speakers. However, they were still limited to establishment representatives—professional scientists and administrators. Many speakers presented strong cases for ending the male domination of the sciences and against the myths concerning women’s “abilities” to be logical and “scientific”.

At one session a male professor of child development put forth the outrageous thesis that women grow up to be better at rote learning than at analytical reasoning, the latter being a “male” characteristic. According to him, little girls acquire rote lesson-learning when they copy the behavior of their mothers, whereas little boys learn more abstract reasoning from their male role models, giving them practice in analytical reasoning. This gem of circular reasoning (a male characteristic?) was given its final twist when the professor reminded us that there may well be a biological reason for this phenomenon, although he could not as yet provide data on this subject. This staggering performance had a gratifying aftermath. The audience and the panelists joined together in totally trouncing the speaker, his pseudo science, and the sexism that created it.

Women at the AAAS seem in many instances to be more politically aware than the men, undoubtedly due to the intense discrimination they have suffered. A few Science for the People women attended an informal women’s caucus set up by some AAAS members. Many of the AAAS women there were embittered by the autocratic treatment they had been dealt by the AAAS bureaucracy. An ad hoc women’s committee of the AAAS formed out of last year’s caucus had been obstructed at every step by the Board of Directors (made up of 12 men, one woman). As we understand it, this committee has now been arbitrarily disbanded and has been replaced by another bureaucratic arrangement which allows the women even less access to the AAAS power structure.

The women at the caucus were anxious to hear about our troubles over the literature table and readily agreed to include as one of their four resolutions to the AAAS Council a statement defending our right to distribute literature. The statement, however, was worded in cautious and noncommittal language.

We hope that next year more of us from Science for the People will attend women’s sessions and work to directly confront the AAAS’s sexist nature. We feel that the women of the AAAS have especially strong reasons to ally with us to fight sexism in science.

Bombing Nixon’s Bombing

A substantial portion of Science for the People’s efforts at the AAAS meeting went into organizing an anti-war rally, partly in response to the most recent bombing raids on northern Vietnam. While we were planning our rally, we learned that a group of well-known scientists had issued a statement, primarily protesting the bombing of civilian targets, and were also planning a rally. We learned too that some members of that group were relying on us to distribute their statement and publicize their rally. After some discussion, our group decided to issue an anti-war statement of our own, one which would not contradict the other statement, but would go considerably beyond it in presenting a brief political analysis of the origins of the war. We also agreed that we would be glad to join with the other group in building a common rally. Sad to say, strong intimations arrived from their famous (but absent) members via long distance telephone that this willingness to join forces was not shared. One notable scientist referred to Science for the People as “the kiss of death”. Thus, there appeared to be queasiness at the thought of working with a group which builds a movement based on mass support, and which, moreover, has on occasion been impolite. Nevertheless, we continued to talk with the members of that group who were present and we were soon pleased to reach agreement on a joint rally and press conference. In spite of the initial hesitation and wariness, considerable mutual respect and trust developed.

In the meantime, other members of our group were working to publicize the rally to everyone at the meetings. Thousands of copies of our anti-war statement were printed and distributed; hundreds of posters were put up; and on the morning of the rally “flying squads” of Science for the People people visited all the sessions, announcing the rally and urging everyone to join us (for a description of “flying squads” see March 1972 Science for the People). Several members of the AAAS chose to do so.

The rally was held on December 28 in a park near the conference hotels, and featured seven speakers, including three from Science for the People. Each Science for the People speaker emphasized one aspect of the war as an illustration of the use of science against the people—the electronic battlefield, the use of counterinsurgency tactics, and the racist ideology inherent in the U.S. government’s Far East and domestic policies. It was pointed out  that these very same scientific techniques which have been developed to suppress people’s struggle for liberation in Indochina are now being applied to similar ends in cities across the United States. Both the rally and the press conference were televised.

As a final encouraging note to these efforts, a fairly strong antiwar resolution was passed by the AAAS council. The statement deplored the use of the resources of modern science for the war and concluded “the Council of the AAAS urges an immediate cessation of hostilities and an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. armed forces from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.” Until recently the Council claimed to hold itself aloof from political involvement and had managed only to express “concern” over the war. The AAAS’s higher echelon has finally been forced to admit that the worlds of science and politics are not separate.

Evenings at the Shoreham

Each evening we held a meeting to review the events of the day and to plan the actions for the remainder of the week. Our meetings grew as more people came to learn about us.

On Wednesday night we had a very large meeting. We discussed our strategy regarding the literature table, and many new people voiced their opinions. After lively discussion, we took a vote: should we continue to make a stand for our right to the table, or should we give up in the face of the AAAS offensive? The vote was 100% for a strong stand.

Sometimes meetings dragged on and on. We would discuss tactics for an action for quite a while and no group consensus could be reached. We’d try voting but the issues were often too complex to sort out. Sometimes we abandoned an action because we couldn’t get it together.

The AAAS meetings are so important that we should give them more extensive advance preparation, without sacrificing our flexibility on the scene.


Encompassing a variety of political orientations within our group, we built a firm solidarity over the five-day period by uniting in action. It is important to remind ourselves of the great value of actions such as these. The awareness we try to encourage is a long time coming. Yet even in one week, Science for the People had a real effect on many people.

The hope should be that each act, each heightening of consciousness, each organized protest, will have the effect of water dripping on stone, inevitably wearing the stone away. Each drop seems ineffective because its result on the stone is invisible; isolated drops will not have the effect of steady and ceaseless ones; no single drop will smash that stone. But in time, the water continues and the stone is no more.

— Tom Hayden

>>  Back to Vol. 5, No. 2  <<