The Seduction of the Scientist

One of the most disheartening features of the current debate on national security has been the perversion of the scientific mode of reasoning until instances of it appear as ghastly caricatures of human thought.

The role of science in transforming man's physical and social environment is well known. Less well known but equally important has been the role of science in freeing man's thinking process from the shackles of tradition, superstition, and bigotry. Science was able to play this role by virtue of its preoccupation with truth, specifically with truth independent of man's appetites, preconceived notions, or current moral convictions. While the Church argued that the earth was a motionless center of the universe because the drama of man's salvation took place on it, astronomers marshaled evidence of the earth's motion. Later when bishops and philosophers argued that species were created separately because only this conclusion agreed with dicta of religion or philosophy, biologists brought forth evidence for evolution. When the Lysenkoists argued that acquired characters are inheritable, because this will revolutionize Soviet agriculture, the Soviet geneticists fought a losing battle by calling attention to evidence to the contrary. Characteristically the enemies of science have striven to make us see the world not as it is but as the power elites thought it ought to be. The scientific attitude appeared to carry the supreme premise of a genuine morality, because it seemed the best antidote to the encrusted moralistic shibboleths, be it the divine right of kings or racist determinism or proletarian dictatorship or free enterprise.

It is all the more discouraging to see in the current debate on national security, outstanding scientists in the service of demagogy, rationalizing their betrayal of the scientific ethos by posing as "hard-headed realists" condescendingly explaining the facts of life to the naive.

How did these scientists get to their present inglorious position? By a series of degradations of the scientific ethos. The foremost principle of that ethos is objectivity. The scientist follows truth wherever it leads, regardless of whether it portends good or evil. This is a very high principle, worthy of truly mature minds. But from there it is only a step down to moral neutrality: the scientist's task is to decide what is so; not what ought to be. From moral neutrality it is only another step to moral irresponsibility: science does not determine goals; science only seeks effective means to achieve given goals, the goals being given by the decision-makers of the scientist's society. Finally the last step downward is taken into moral illiteracy, the total unawareness of moral issues.

A physicist proclaims, "If we continue to neglect our preparations, a nuclear war will be the end of our democratic way of life." He threatens us with tyranny if we do not plan mass murder. He forgets that the most characteristic feature of tyranny is the subjugation of human life to what the tyrannical elite calls political necessity. The Nazis slaughtered innocent men, women, and children, saying that they did this to insure "national survival." The killing of hostages became one of the most characteristic stigmas of Nazi depravity. And now our military planners, seconded by their hired scientists, proclaim deterrence as an insurance of "national survival." Plainly speaking, deterrence means that if we are attacked, we will retaliate, and it does not mean anything unless we mean this. So if we mean it, and if, for some reason, deterrence fails, we will have to retaliate, that is, we will have to perform an act of senseless revenge on tens of millions of men, women, and children, who were in no way responsible for what happened.

How does this proposed slaughter differ, aside from its extent, from the killing of hostages? So what meaning can be assigned to "our democratic way of life" if we have already betrayed its cardinal principle, namely that human sacrifice, especially mass human sacrifice is not to be made to political necessity?

But moral issues are not the scientist's concern, according to the scientists who emulate Tennyson's Six Hundred. Unfortunately, scientific issues are not his concern either, if they fall outside the range of his specialty's microscope. One physicist, discussing the effects of a single bomb of specified power exploded at a specified height "refutes" an "alarmist" by arguing that only 500 square miles instead of 5,000 will be completely and immediately devastated by that explosion. He reassures us on the score of fire storms in California by correcting erroneous notions on the nature of forest fires. Another physicist shows that the dangers from a cumulated deposit of Strontium 90 are "probably" exaggerated. Still another presents as a definitive argument in favor of a shelter-building program his calculations to the effect that a properly designed and properly utilized shelter system can reduce the casualties of a thermonuclear attack from one hundred million to forty million (provided, of course, the attack is of the sort and timing anticipated.) This is what goes for a realistic "scientific" appraisal of the danger. For a physicist, scientific appraisal means calculation resulting in answers expressed in units which he under-stands, namely Roentgens, megatons, millions of degrees, tons per square inch, square miles, etc. The biologist tells the physicist how to translate his findings into lives destroyed, forfeit, and possibly saved, and that is the extent of the physicist's calculations and of his "science." Psychological matters do not even exist for such a physicist. If he is properly humble, he will declare that to be beyond the scope of his competence; if he is arrogant, he will dismiss psychology for not having attained the exalted status of an exact science. In either case, the fate of the survivors as human beings never enters his calculations. Nor do the psychological effects of the measures he proposes enter his calculations. Being ignorant of psychology, he accepts the tacit assumptions of the equally ignorant military planner. Like the latter he views world politics as a chess game. If the "opponent" attains the capacity to strike and expects reasonable impunity, he will strike. If the opponent feels himself sufficiently threatened by retaliation, he will not strike (all historical and psychological evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). As in the theory of games, decisions are calculated by comparing "expected pay-offs," in the simplest case by subtracting the losses of your opponent from your own. Realism equals mistrust. Maturity equals ruthlessness.

I have heard that a sign hanging on the premises of the Rand Corporation reads "Don't think – compute!" A more appropriate slogan could not have been designed for the scientist who has forsaken the search for wisdom to serve as a magician to the wielders of absolute power.