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Book Review : When Scientists Leave the Laboratory

December 18, 1987|LEE DEMBART

Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America by Peter J. Kuznick (University of Chicago Press: $29.95; 363 pages)

I spent my first 15 years in the newspaper dodge as a reporter, first covering politics and then covering science. The two experiences could not have been more different.

Scientists are subject to all of the foibles and shortcomings that afflict human beings in general, but at base, what they are trying to do is increase the world's knowledge. Covering them was fun.

Politicians, on the other hand, are trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Their goal is to decrease the world's knowledge. Covering them was a chore.

Unfortunately, however, science and politics are not separate entities. Science is never value-free. Decisions must be made about which lines of research to pursue and which to ignore, and decisions must also be made about how discoveries should be used and who gets to benefit from them.

In an era when government is the major supporter of scientific research, these decisions are frequently political. Even when they aren't, the image of an ivory-tower scientist pursuing his research apart from the world is largely a myth. All knowledge has social implications.

An Ongoing Problem

The intimate connection between science and politics is an ongoing problem for scientists. Earlier this year, at the annual meeting of the American Mathematical Society, a small but influential group of mathematicians introduced resolutions calling on their colleagues to refuse to participate in military research. They were turned down, at least in part because the Defense Department is the country's largest supporter of research in mathematics. Few people can bite the hand that feeds them.

A casual observer might think that scientists' concern about the uses of their inventions got started with the atomic bomb in World War II. Not so. Peter J. Kuznick carefully demonstrates in "Beyond the Laboratory" that political activism by scientists was well under way at least a decade before that. The Depression was a powerful radicalizing force among intellectuals of all kinds, and scientists were no exception.

"The politicization of the scientists was part of a process that affected all strata of the population in 1930s America," Kuznick writes. "Scientists were subjected to many of the same influences as other Americans. But they were also, in many ways, unique, because of their initially strong identification with the power structure, their special code of beliefs and ethics, their internationalism, their ambiguous position in society as both saviors and villains, and their embodiment of a peculiar sort of hubris."

Kuznick, a historian at the American University in Washington, has written a scholarly tome that gives chapter and verse of the growth of political involvements by the scientific community throughout the decade, including the infatuation by many with the Soviet Union and the belief that Marxism held the key to a better world.

As with most people who flirted with communism in the '30s, Stalin's reign of terror disillusioned most scientists, as did the Soviet-Nazi pact. These debates were played out through organizations with names like the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom and its further-left spinoff, the American Assn. of Scientific Workers.

One of the problems with Kuznick's book is that these matters now seem dated to the point of being archaic. Sidney Hook, the philosopher, wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago in which he commented on how far away the politics of the 1930s now seems to us. It's hard to remember that people took these things so seriously.

Issues Still Up to Date

But while the details now seem so irrelevant, the underlying issues are very up to date. Then as now, some scientists argued that scientists should stay out of these things, but others responded as they do now that conditions demanded that they fulfill their responsibilities as human beings in addition to being scientists.

Then as now, there was fear that science had unleashed knowledge that humanity would not use responsibly. "The superman has created the airplane and the radio, the ape-man has got hold of them," an anonymous scientist said at the time, a precursor of a very modern problem.

Great Intelligence

However, great intelligence in one field does not guarantee great intelligence in any other. Even the smartest scientists have no compelling claim to expertise outside

their own field, particularly in politics.

Alas, scientists seem no better able to figure out what should be done than politicians do. This is not surprising. Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the great philosophers of this century, wrote in 1921, "Even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched."

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