Confront Big Science with SftP: Criticism, Conflict and Creativity

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

Confront Big Science with SftP: Criticism, Conflict and Creativity

Boston AAAS Meeting Feb 18–24, 1976

by Kostia Bergman, Herb Fox, Mike Teel

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 1, January 1976, p. 20–21

Except for eclipses, atomic explosions and rocket trips, science and scientists do not usually get lead coverage in the daily newspapers. A notable exception was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in 1969, when the papers were full of pictures and stories about a scientific meeting, of all things. This, indeed, seems remarkable. Because even for the scientists and technologists themselves, scientific meetings are among the most boring of events. And yet, during that week, front-page articles and photographs showed such things as long lines of ordinary people waiting their tum to ask some prestigious technocrat such questions as, “Why are there slums on earth and rockets on the moon?” Reports in the papers of other strange happenings like guerrilla theater and earthy language suggested, that at least one scientific meeting was not a bore.

Ten thousand people attended that Boston meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They were treated to some rare events:

  • a cough-in at an American Tobacco Association booth on lung cancer
  • the handing out of free “moon rocks”
  • the presentation of the “Dr. Strangelove Award” to Edward Teller, “father of the H-bomb”
  • films of people’s struggles from Viet Nam to Detroit
  • and plenty more …

For many, the whole show was free; a bunch of fun-loving but very serious critics of the uses of science (later to be known as Science for the People) had successfully pressured the staid old (founded in 1848) AAAS to open its doors free of charge to the general public.

The 1969 meeting in Boston was the beginning. Similar newsworthy and entertaining things happened at subsequent AAAS meetings: in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, etc. And similar things began to happen to other scientific and professional associations, like the American Physical Society, International Genetics Meeting, and the National Science Teachers’ Association. But the things that happened were not just entertaining (or “outrageous” as some of the establishment claimed); they were serious and provocative in content as well as in form. In addition to the distribution and sale of numerous pamphlets, papers, and leaflets, which seriously addressed questions of vital concern about the development and use of science and technology, in many sessions there was systematic, penetrating interrogation of technocrats responsible for the development and use of destructive and undemocratic science and technology. The technologies targeted included the automated battle-field, the anti-ballistic missile system, psychosurgery (e.g. lobotomies), and theories about the inferiority of Blacks and women. Most significant was the apperance of a few activist scientists and technologists who put their professional ambition second to a desire to have their scientific work serve (rather than oppose) the interests of the oppressed people of the world.

The massive publicity, increased attendance and wider general interest in meetings of the AAAS brought about by the active presence of Science for the People did not endear the activists to the AAAS hierarchy. Behind repeated incantations about “freedom from disruptions” and of how the protesters had “no positive program” was the awareness by the AAAS that a content of the Science for the People message was at variance with their own purposes. The AAAS would speak about promoting human welfare through science, but in reality it was promoting a science of social control, mystification, profit, or (at best) irrelevance. SftP asked the fundamental question of whose welfare was being promoted.

Well, AAAS meetings have not been as newsworthy and exciting of late. Even the calling-in of Washington, D.C. police to remove the Science for the People literature table at a meeting did not make many newspapers or attract new people to the meetings. Nevertheless, the message of Science for the People still seems to be of interest to a substantial minority of those who attend AAAS meetings, as can be judged by the sales of Science for the People magazine at meetings. But this October at Voluntown, Conn., at the third annual Northeast Regional Conference of Science for the People a spark was kindled that may well make the AAAS meeting worth going to again. In a show of enthusiasm the conference overWhelmingly approved plans for applying its full re· sources to participation at the February meetings of the AAAS in Boston, Feb. 18-24. It is yet to be seen how well the AAAS will be able to distort the facts; to portray the reasoned criticism of dedicated and informed activist scientists and technologists as nothing more than destructive outrage. But the enthusiastic intention is to combine the highest level of informed criticism with the most uncompromising opposition to the science fatcats arid the class they serve.

So Boston, in the 200th year since the war of independence from the British colonial rule, and the seventh year since the challenging of the science establishment, is likely to hear once again the voices of protest. Science for the People will be challenging such assumptions as: scientific progress benefits everyone in our society; social problems come from defective individuals; science works best in a profit-oriented system of immense corporations. And we will be putting forth the positive strategy of uniting with the working class and oppressed people.

Pivotal in the planned presence are several sessions in the official program initiated by Science for the People members. (See enclosed box.) The purpose of these sessions is to provide some of the framework within which the class role of science and technology can be questioned. And the sessions are organized to encourage this questioning from the floor. In fact, the success of the sessions will be judged by how many people can be drawn into the discussion and then into action.

There will be many other activities. Some are being planned by Science for the People groups; others are sure to result from the work of many other participating groups and individuals who Science for the People is mobilizing. They are being encouraged to prepare leaflets, guerrilla theater, tapes, slide shows, etc., and bring them along. To maximize participation a substantial publicity campaign is being initiated.

In the bicentennial of one struggle against oppression, Science for the People is calling on everyone to join and challenge science to serve the people.

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