Since Congress cannot repeal the law of gravitation, is physics at odds with democracy? That is high school humor, but it can be turned into scary questions, illustrated with human shadows burned into Hiroshima walls, bewildered refugees from Middletown, Pa., and amphitheaters of docile youths copying equations. Since the laws of nature are established by self-selected fellowships of scientists, may they not subject the innocent majority to their esoteric power? In that form the question still seems the product of an adolescent subculture; it recalls the horror comics that derive from gothic novels, increasingly silly caricatures of fearful belief in occult knowledge as power.
Modern culture has replaced such antique dreams by scientific knowledge, with baffling results. Natural science is not occult but accessible to any normal mind, and it generates real, not imaginary power—which confronts us as an alien force, which may even destroy us all. Nuclear bombs are the appropriate symbol, not only in their literal capacity to destroy us all, but also in the universal irresponsibility that they embody. Scientific inventors created them as an unrestricted gift to military and political leaders, who keep insisting in advance that “the adversary” will be responsible if “we” are “obliged” to initiate some “nuclear exchange.”
Creations of human minds confront us as external necessities; they not only push us toward self-destruction but mock us along the way for ever dreaming that people could freely shape their future by rational discussion and conscious decision. Not only in technology, but in science itself, as romantic thinkers have been complaining for two centuries, the mind’s knowledge of objects seems to stand outside the mind, like the things themselves, prohibiting some lines of thought, ordering others, restricting the mind to the discovery of necessity, turning the mind into another thing, like the calculating machines that guide smart missiles to their programmed goal.
Here are three more scholars grappling with such perplexities. Daniel Kevles is the least alarmed, or the most euphemistic. He discerns a manageable tension between “elitist science” and “democracy” in the history of American physics over the past century. Spencer Weart’s history of French nuclear physics illustrates a menacing title, Scientists in Power, with the usual symbols: a mushroom cloud on the dust jacket and a frontispiece photograph of a glowing apparatus magnetizing the intense gaze of the three Frankensteins who made it. Under a reassuring title, Science in a Free Society, Paul Feyerabend has written the most disturbed book, a diatribe against the “intellectual fascism of most of our leading philosophers, scientists, philosophers of science,” “a small gang of power and money-hungry intellectuals” who hold “common citizens” in “ideological and financial exploitation.”
Weart’s title seems to imply support for such accusations, but his excellent history shows how physicists were excluded from power, and not just in France. Weart has actually done a comparative history, for he has carefully traced French connections with British, US, and Canadian nuclear research. In all these countries, whenever scientists’ discoveries developed important technological implications, they were firmly subjected to “industrial, military, and government people.” Weart seems unaware that he has rediscovered C. Wright Mills’s power elite, and demonstrated the subjection of scientists to it. Kevles also provides evidence of that subjection, but veils it, as many scientists do, by cultivating a snobbish sense that they are somehow above the people who rule them. Usually the cult of purity, combined with haughty indifference to the concerns of “industrial, military, and government people,” performs the masking functions. Kevles presses toward unmasking by giving serious attention to the relationship of pure physics with technology and politics. Unfortunately he does not press the examination far enough. He is eager to show what great contributions physicists have made to America’s industrial wealth, military power, and national prestige, but reluctant to probe the part they have played in deciding how their contributions are used.
In this respect Kevles’s book resembles many Soviet histories of science, which also dwell lovingly on the contributions of scientists to the prosperity, strength, and glory of the fatherland, and do not probe the essential relationship between the scientists who offer contributions and the leaders who accept. The underlying assumption is that the leaders represent the nation, and therefore have sovereign authority to decide what shall be accepted and how it shall be used. Power over human beings is on one side, knowledge of inhuman nature on the other—a monstrous specialization of function, which could yield a Hitler armed with nuclear bombs. That is the usual symbol of the danger. Far more serious, because far more likely, is the danger that normal leaders will feel encouraged to some “rational” use of nuclear weapons by scientific advisers whose function it is to tell what is technically feasible, not what is humanly right. We hardly need to speculate; that has already happened.
Consider this illuminating episode, which Kevles omits in spite of his inordinate love of anecdotes. It sheds more light than he can bear on the position of scientists in our democracy. Just after Roosevelt’s death Leo Szilard went looking for the leaders who might set off a nuclear arms race by a spectacular display of the A-bomb’s power to kill Japanese. He was shunted to Kansas City, to Washington, and finally to South Carolina, where at last he and two scientific colleagues achieved an audience with a genuine potentate, Jimmy Byrnes. The scientists were realistic enough to ask to pity for the potential Japanese victims. They focused on the calamity the United States might suffer if it precipitated a nuclear arms race, and on the possibility of averting such calamity by keeping the A-bomb secret or by demonstrating it as a weapon too dangerous to use on people. They requested a meeting with the President and his Cabinet, so they might provide the information necessary for a rational decision.
Byrnes was annoyed by such presumption, especially by Szilard’s “general demeanor and his desire to participate in policy-making.” 1 The Russians, he told them, had to be shown that we would have unanswerable power in the postwar world, and we would, for the Russians could not make nuclear bombs. General Groves had told him so. Moreover, Congress must be considered. Two billion of the people’s dollars had been spent in secret. Without a dramatic display of the great new killing force that had been created for the people, they might grumble at their public servants.2
Byrnes may well have been right about domestic public relations, if not about the international realities of the arms race he thought to start and win at one stroke. His Caesaristic concept of democracy—the massed populace cheering the military force that embodies its mythic power—may have been closer to the mentality of twentieth-century Americans than Szilard’s antique dream of enlightened discussion leading to rational and humane decisions. Szilard was reduced to the usual rueful soliloquy of the intellectual, ironically contrasting his impotent acuity with the obtuse power of his superiors:
I was rarely as depressed as when we left Byrnes’ house and walked toward the station. I thought to myself how much better off the world might be had I been born in America and become influential in American politics, and had Byrnes been born in Hungary and studied physics. In all probability there would then have been no atomic bomb and no danger of an arms race between America and Russia.3
The point here is not the brutal delusions of political and military leaders in launching the nuclear arms race, but the ideology that closed their minds to the humane realism of “concerned scientists.” The charmed circle of policy makers represented “the people,” and the scientists making the bomb did not belong. If that is what Kevles means by his contrast between “democracy” and “elitist science,” he should translate the ideological terms into plain talk: “democracy” means top bosses, “elitist science” means their technical servants. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the nuclear scientists quietly accepted that relationship, with or without an “elitist” sense of superiority to their bosses. They were truly “unconcerned” with policy making, submissive to the rule that specialists must be on tap, not on top. Only a tiny group even thought to discuss issues of arms policy among themselves.
Most of that tiny group of “concerned scientists” shared Szilard’s views, or perhaps we should say James Franck’s views. Franck was the only scientist who had had the foresight, when he was recruited to the bomb project, to extract a promise: if the project should succeed, he would have the right to communicate his views on policy to the highest level. In June 1945 he demanded fulfillment of the promise, and prepared the “Franck Report,” arguing that a murderous demonstration of the bomb would certainly set off a disastrous arms race. This, he said, might be avoided by a non-murderous demonstration coupled with a timely proposal to the Soviet regime for mutual restraint.
The memo was stifled in the usual bureaucratic manner, by dispatch to a review committee, four eminent physicists headed by Oppenheimer. They smothered Franck’s arguments with commentary, a balancing act that ended with a self-effacing disclaimer of “special competence in solving the political, social, and military problems which are presented by the advent of atomic power.”4
In 1949, when the Soviet regime exploded its first A-bomb, the American regime reasserted its dream of omnipotence, with a crash program for a hydrogen “superbomb.” This time Oppenheimer accepted the responsibility he had evaded in 1945. Still in charge of a scientific advisory committee, he skillfully organized a unanimous recommendation against the crash program, for a public discussion, and for a proposal to the Soviet Union that both countries refrain from making an H-bomb.5 Not only was this recommendation rejected; Oppenheimer was transformed from a national hero into a shifty character of suspect loyalty.
That famous case dramatizes the tragic situation of scientific armorers who come to see that they are morally responsible but politically impotent, rather like the technicians who are now preparing the nation’s electric chairs and gas chambers. Of course, technical preparations for a few hundred ritual killings are not nearly as horrifying as technical preparations for killing hundreds of millions. The similarity in the two cases is in the moral predicament of individual technicians who perceive the horror but cannot prevent it, whether by refusing to serve—others will do the job—or by agreeing to serve in hopes of gaining influence on those who command the murderous technology. Sakharov testifies to “the feeling of impotence and fright that seized” him when he realized that he had earned no such influence by making H-bombs for the Soviet bosses.6 Allowing for the different political styles of the Soviet and American power elites, his experience was remarkably similar to Oppenheimer’s.
Kevles obscures the moral responsibility and the political impotence of the physicists. He is the court historian of an American establishment that serves the sovereign people; he takes for granted the rectitude of that service, even when the leaders who speak for the collective order a race toward nuclear disaster. Individual responsibility is dissolved into a collective abstraction, the nation or people, and Oppenheimer’s moral tragedy disappears along with his responsibility. In place of tragedy Kevles presents the usual melodrama of honor rightfully bestowed on the nation’s chief armorer, honor wrongfully withdrawn in a time of hysteria, and honor happily restored by the laying on of presidential hands. Lyndon Johnson gave Oppenheimer a medal, a ceremony of purification that Kevles describes with moist sentimentality.
Kevles is also anxious to note that even in the period of hysteria there
was not an attack against scientists as such. The Eisenhower administration kept appointing scientists to serve on advisory panels, boards, and committees. And physicists still enjoyed a voice at the highest levels of government, including the White House.
What function those voices served, with respect to major issues such as the arms race, is neatly indicated by Theodore Sorensen’s observation of Jerome Wiesner’s role as science adviser to President Kennedy: He “greatly raised the stature” of his office “by learning to accept philosophically [the President’s] decisions contrary to [his] advice.” That ancient miracle, the stature that rises as the person bows down to the ruler, is only dimly illuminated by Kevles.
Spencer Weart gives a far sharper picture of “elite” status won by political subjection, perhaps because he has been studying power and its ideological mystifications in a democracy of foreigners. Perhaps he learned something from editing the memoirs of Leo Szilard, who had extraordinary insight in such matters. Whatever the case, he brings out the significance of much that Kevles ignores or confuses. Patents, for example. As early as 1934, only two years after the discovery of the neutron opened the atomic nucleus to analysis,7 Szilard took out a patent on an idea for the release of nuclear energy.
He was not unique in such an effort to use the bourgeois law of property rights as a claim to some control of applied science, as a way to turn scientists from mere servants of power into participants in it. In France on the eve of the war Frédéric Joliot-Curie tried the same tactic on a far more elaborate scale, which he could do because he was in charge of his country’s nuclear research, while Szilard was a homeless and jobless exile. (He used to spend so much time meditating in the common bathtub of a cheap hotel that the maid would knock and ask if he was all right.)
The circumstances were different, but ultimately he and Joliot-Curie were taught the same lesson. While their schemes for the use of nuclear energy were fuzzy, they were secure in their patents, guaranteed the right to beg research funds from industrial executives and government officials. As the schemes became practical, the scientists were pressed into renunciation (or nominal sale) of their patents, and thus of any claim to control their brainchild whether for the sake of their pockets or their consciences.
Secrecy, the concerted withholding of knowledge, was another way that Szilard tried to keep his science from evil uses. As early as 1935 he began proposing “something like a conspiracy of those scientists who work” in nuclear physics, a secret agreement to keep results in the “dangerous zone” restricted to a circle of trustworthy colleagues. In 1939, immediately after Otto Hahn’s famous paper demonstrating nuclear fission, Szilard undertook an active campaign for such a conspiracy of silence. He persuaded Teller, Blackett, Bohr, and a very reluctant Fermi, but he could not persuade Joliot-Curie, who was eager to maintain his and his nation’s prestige at the forefront of nuclear research. Ignoring Szilard’s pleas, he published a precise measurement of neutron emission in nuclear fission, which precipitated secretive enterprises of a very different sort. Scientists in England, Germany, and the Soviet Union saw the possibility of a chain reaction and wrote confidential memoranda to their governments urging research programs on an atomic bomb. Szilard himself, realizing the failure of his plan for voluntary secrecy to prevent the bomb, organized the famous letter from Einstein to Roosevelt, which started the US bomb project.
Szilard’s initial idea of a conspiracy of silence strikes me as an unwitting effort to revive the hermetic tradition of high-minded scholars like Isaac Newton, who refrained from publishing his alchemical findings lest they be misused.8 Newton withheld innocuous alchemy, while Joliot-Curie insisted on publishing extremely dangerous science. That bitter irony is grounded in the nature of things. The compulsive publicity of modern scientists is one of the main reasons they get at the nature of things more reliably, and therefore far more dangerously, than hermetic alchemy. The ethos of publicity, the loathing of secrecy, is an essential part of the modern scientist’s passion for objectivity, that is, for competitive testing and certification of each person’s claim to knowledge. Asking scientists to withhold their findings from publication is like asking businessmen to withdraw from the marketplace, the mechanism by which competitors take the measure of everybody’s claims.
Unfortunately, the analogy does not stop there. Like businessmen, scientists can be induced to leave the competitive marketplace—to work for a monopolistic public corporation, such as the Manhattan Project. Weart shows how Szilard’s efforts to prevent bombmaking by voluntary secrecy led directly to governmental imposition of secrecy in order to gain a monopoly of bombmaking. More evidence, like the expropriation of the scientists’ patents, that there are forces at work in science as in other parts of the social process, turning autonomous artisans and visionaries into employees, killing the old dream of a community of equal individuals, now competing with each other, now compacting for the common good.
Brecht was exaggerating when he called the new breed of scientists “a generation of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose.” Some of those who invented the A-bomb were full-sized human beings. They worried about the consequences of the invention they could not keep themselves from making. They resemble Brecht’s Keunos, an ancient philosopher whose home was invaded by an official demanding, “Will you serve me?” Keunos served him, in silence, for many years, until the official died. Then Keunos dragged the corpse out of his house, straightened up, and said, “No.”9
Joliot-Curie, the French counterpart of Oppenheimer, played a part closer to absurdist farce than tragedy, a Keunos who shouted “No!” while he served, until he was put out of his own house and replaced by a yes man. He organized the French nuclear bomb project, while insisting that he was working only for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. While performing that service for his nation’s power elite, he was an outspoken Communist, giving lectures on science as an ally of the proletariat in the creation of socialism. He joined the Party during the German occupation, when a colleague was tortured and killed. But long before that he was inspired by “the ideology of science,” as Weart calls the old faith in progress through the universal application of science. Natural science would develop splendid technologies, while social science—Marxism, after he joined the Party—would guarantee the proper use of technology by guiding society to perfection. He also shared the widespread faith of scientists that their profession reduces international conflict since it transcends national cultures10—while he strained every nerve to restore French prestige in science, with nuclear power as the chief symbol of such prestige. For peaceful uses only, he kept stressing, as he assembled the technological complex that could make bombs. “He made a distinction that reactors cannot make: he wanted to produce abundant power but not plutonium for bombs.”
As the time approached to put the plutonium into bombs, the French authorities simply dismissed Joliot-Curie. They replaced him with one Dautry, a thoroughly compliant administrator, who declared that “the nation…certainly does not wish…to be governed by scientists, who are not specially trained for this task.” The nation wants loyal managers, “engineers obedient to their superiors and benevolent to their employees.” Technicians with that ideology are sometimes called “technocrats” in Weart’s book, in an effort, let us hope, to show the ridiculousness of the term. Like Kevles’s “elitist science,” “technocrat” veils political subservience by calling attention to the social status that depends on such subservience.
Weart sympathizes with Joliot-Curie’s failed effort to withstand “technocrats,” his stubborn attempt “to recombine within himself two ways of seeing and acting upon the world, which have grown far apart.” “Technical logic and human feeling” are probably the best of Weart’s names for the two ways of seeing and acting, whose fission “almost tore Joliot apart,” not only in applied science but also in pure research. Even before the war, when he admired Soviet talk of “planned science” and organized one of the first atom smashers, he pioneered the replacement of individual inquiry by team research. Toward the end of his life he sensed self-defeat there too, as he saw the scientist changing from “an artisan or artist” into an “assembly line” worker.
How then does Weart justify his conclusion that “the scientists, whether they sat with government ministers or not, were in power?” By calling attention to two kinds of power that leaders of the scientific establishment have. They read the lessons of inhuman nature to the power elite, and within their autonomous institutions they control significant quantities of money and people. Kevles is also impressed by those subordinate powers of the scientific establishment, and shows less inclination than Weart to ask why they are almost always used to increase, only rarely to check, the superior power of “industrial, military, and government people.”
The most obvious reasons why are the scientists’ acceptance of their subordination, and the worship of military-industrial national power that most of them, like citizens generally, share with the power elites of their separate nations. The most disturbing reason why is the possibility hinted at by Weart’s talk of a separation between “technical logic” and “human feeling” within science itself. May that be another way of suggesting that the natural sciences, detached from other forms of thinking and feeling, have become specialized calculating devices of a vast social mechanism whose interacting parts generate an uncontrollable drive to maximize power?
Paul Feyerabend has turned such disturbing questions about modern social systems and their characteristic mentalities into a diatribe against “most of our leading philosophers, scientists, philosophers of science,” whose “intellectual fascism” has subjected “common citizens” to “ideological and financial exploitation.” He seems to think that scientific intellectuals run the world according to their dictatorial insistence on an imagined method of science as the only way to truth. Science and society will be jointly liberated if he can convert people to his “anarchistic theory of knowledge,” with “Anything Goes!” as the supreme law.
Feyerabend’s Against Method, a 1975 manifesto recently reissued in paperback now has a patchy sequel in Science in a Free Society, which consists partly of replies to critics and partly of autobiographical confession. He boasts defiantly of the personal reasons for his lapsed faith in science; he converted to faithhealing after scientific medicine failed to make his bowel movements normal and his urine clear. He urges women to try massage and herbal diets as a cure for breast cancer. He laments a theatrical career forsaken for professional philosophizing, which he now finds tedious and foolish if not wicked. He whines and sputters about the nearly universal misunderstanding he has suffered. He insists that a genuinely free society would allow parents to force astrology or witchcraft on their children’s minds in place of the science course now required by the state. He would even legalize a subculture for those who find personal fulfillment in killing other persons.
That is only a small sample of the postures Feyerabend strikes, while complaining that people have grown too pedestrian or “constipated” to appreciate the vigorous style of writers like himself, Luther, G.B. Shaw—the list is long and motley, with special emphasis on Dada, which he seems to equate with madcap clowning to deflate pompous nonsense. I’m not sure I know when he is clowning or crying or philosophizing. I’m not sure it matters. This is not Rousseau tramping the countryside in search of an integrated mind and soul; this is a little professorial descendant of Rousseau pacing the tiny academic cage in which our culture has confined philosophers of science.
Then why bother with Feyerabend? Because his hokey act provokes thought about important issues, and does so more effectively than the usual sober treatises in philosophy of science. He would deserve warm applause, if his performance were as bold in substance as it is brash in manner. He insists on historical and anthropological approaches to the analysis of knowledge, but he evades the hardest questions implicit in those approaches. For example he praises Maoist intervention to save traditional Chinese medicine (Chung-i) from extinction, but he ignores the telltale case of the tadpole contraceptive.
The Communists organized a mass campaign for that method of birth control—the tadpole to be swallowed by the woman—and thus unintentionally proved it to be ineffective. That rude defeat of belief by collision with physical reality raises critical questions, which point the historical or anthropological investigation of knowledge away from easygoing relativism. Was there some dreamy quality in the traditional Chinese mentality that permitted a persistent belief in a contraceptive method which could so easily be proved ineffective? And is there some harsher quality in the mentality of scientific physicians, some dream-destroying method, which persistently brings them closer than traditional rivals to objective tests of truth? Feyerabend ignores the first question, and answers no to the second, on the ground that scientific physicians cannot cure cancer while herbal diets and massage can.
I am not exaggerating the flimsiness of his argument. He ignores not only the case of the tadpole contraceptive,11 but the enormous record of defeats that traditional medicine of all types has been suffering. He attributes the world-wide monopoly that scientific medicine has been winning to the tyranny of its adepts, and makes no effort to distinguish between the ephemeral social tyranny of persons or classes and the everlasting natural tyranny inherent in things, the body included. No emperor can possibly be as eternally imperious as the “numerical method” of testing claims to knowledge. That was the name that a French doctor in 1836 put on his careful tabulation of the results of bloodletting, which proved that favorite therapy to be useless or harmful. Applied by an Austrian doctor to a study of childbed fever, the “numerical method” further upset the self-conceit of European physicians by proving that their unwashed hands brought the deadly infection to the childbirths they attended. Such triumphs of objective reasoning over the subjective convictions of traditional physicians have been accumulating on such an impressive scale as to raise insistently the sort of question that infuriates Feyerabend.12 May not the “numerical method,” suitably generalized, be part of some “scientific method,” some common pattern in the many different ways we ask things to chastise our beliefs about them?
No philosopher has succeeded in abstracting that universal scientific method from the multitude of changing methods used in various sciences and other fields of cognition. Feyerabend convinces me readily of that. But he does not confront the obvious next question. If human cognition is a welter of “incommensurable” mentalities, to use his favorite term, or a succession of shifting “paradigms,” to use Thomas Kuhn’s milder term, how is it that knowledge accumulates in spite of paradigm shifts, across the barriers between incommensurable mentalities? “The” scientific method, like “the” literary imagination or “the” grammar of language, may exist even though all these modes of thought resist abstraction from the mind’s varied work in particular contexts. Scientific method may be necessarily concrete, as music is made only with particular instruments, and the dance is inseparable from dancers. That seems to be Thomas Kuhn’s sensible version of the historical approach to the theory of knowledge. Feyerabend seems to deny reality to methods that resist universal abstraction; he seems to declare any jiggling dancing, any gibberish language, any noise music.
In his new book he disowns such extremism, but only in vague declarations. He still evades the hard questions implicit, for example, in his insistent pointing to the case of acupuncture. That is an effective anesthetic technique that scientific medicine cannot explain. As yet or ever? Feyerabend evades that crucial question. Is the bafflement that acupuncture provokes in scientific physicians the result of their commitment to a mechanistic neurophysiology, which is necessary perplexed by mind-body problems such as pain? Does Chung-i have in this case not only an effective technique but also an explanation that could provide useful amendment to neurophysiology? Or is there another “incommensurability” here, teaching us to abandon the authoritarian dream of a single medical science and to appreciate proliferation of diverse medical schools?
To ask such questions is to point the way down from the windy heights of abstract philosophy, toward entanglement with the concrete issues of a particular field of knowledge. I am not asking Feyerabend for a medical treatise. I would be grateful for the most elementary step toward a genuinely historical approach, such as the observation that people of different mentalities recognize the anesthetic effects of acupuncture, or the observation that scientific neurologists readily acknowledge their inability to explain those effects. Evidently commitment to “incommensurable” mentalities does not prevent people from agreeing on certain factual observations, or even from recognizing when their observations do not fit within their basic beliefs. If Feyerabend were to move further toward a genuine comparative history of medical schools, he would probably find such openmindedness, such capacity for surprise, to be greater among modern scientific physicians than among adepts of traditional schools such as Chung-i. I make that guess because a sharp distinction between factual observation and theoretical explanation is part of the ideology instilled in scientific physicians, as in scientists generally.
That distinction is part of the general tendency of modern science to seek mastery over nature by a preliminary insistence that it is independent of our minds. We begin meteorology with the recognition that rain comes and goes regardless of our thoughts about it. Feyerabend audaciously demurs, noting that rain dances work for societies that believe in them. Once again he is superficially provocative but basically evasive. What work do rain dances do? Do they affect the weather, or only the way that people feel about the weather? That is a cruel sort of question, not only for the dwindling tribes that still sense communion with rainclouds, and not only for civilized poetic souls who lament the disappearance of such communion from the modern industrial world. The separation of the observing mind from the things observed opens the way to miseries and disasters for the least romantic souls, the most complacent prisoners of the scientific mentality. “Mastery” over nature is indeed achieved by that mentality, in such forms as to threaten uncontrollable changes in the weather. For example, the industrial world, whose endless growth is nourished by science, is increasing the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to such an extent that a hothouse effect may be created, which would turn the world into a desert.
A few concerned scientists warn of such remote dangers, as Szilard and Franck warned of the disastrous arms race that would follow from the bomb they could not keep themselves from inventing. Are scientists necessarily powerless to control the powers they release? It would seem so, in part by force of the very ideology that animates their work as scientists. The sharp distinction between factual observation and theoretical explanation, and the sharper separation of both from human values, seem indispensable to scientific inquiry, and at the same time such distinctions and separations turn scientists into lopsided specialists, unconcerned qua scientists with anything beyond their narrowly defined tasks.
Perhaps the most absurd of specialized tasks is performed by philosophers of science who preach the transcendence of specialization, who bless each scientist in his special field for applying some version of “the” scientific method which is the only way to truth. In social function, though not in linguistic habit, such philosophers resemble the priests who bless other specialized professions: the professors of literature and art who tell writers and artists that they are the unacknowledged legislators of truth, the historians and political “scientists” who give timeless reassurance to ephemeral bosses, the theologians who justify the invocation of a universal god at the launching of our country’s nuclear submarines.
An anthropological and historical approach to a theory of knowledge should begin, I think, with analysis of the divergent, limited modes of cognition that are cloaked with illusions of universality in such ideologies. At times Feyerabend seems on the verge of attempting such a broad approach. He says that he wants to “put science in its place as an interesting but by no means exclusive form of knowledge that has many advantages but also many drawbacks.” More often he shows his mind to be still imprisoned by the characteristic delusions of the typical philosopher of science. Physics is most often his model for all forms of cognition, and he does not ask if the qualities excluded from the study of physics—human society and the mind, to take a couple of notable examples—require some qualitatively different modes of cognition. When he looks for different modes, he can think only of such obsolescent oddities as witchcraft and astrology, or the obsolete. Weltanschauung of the Homeric Greeks. He shares the astonishing provincialism of the most complacent scientists and philosophers of science: “Most rivals of science have by now either disappeared or have changed so that a conflict with science…no longer arises.”
He seems never to have noticed that the disciplines called humanities embody modes of cognition quite different from those of the physical sciences. But far more important are those modes that flourish outside the academic ghetto. The sharply conflicting communities of political leaders, to take a major example, employ modes of cognition that overlap only slightly with those of the sciences, the humanities, or the arts. Feyerabend seems almost blind to the diversity, the near chaos, of the real world of human thought. Like an angry ex-Communist or religious apostate, he thinks he has emancipated his mind by changing from love to hatred of the dogma that still focuses his thinking: physical science is the only way to truth. He imagines that he has escaped from the cage of scientism when he is only shaking the bars.
Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when scientism inspired grandiose schemes to remake the world on supposedly scientific principles, it was often a challenge to those who ruled. In our century it has become a snobbish ideology for subdued specialists, part of their sense of elite status. They know the method that will some day master human affairs as it has already mastered atoms and microbes. Meantime the human world must be governed by the powers that be, according to crude prescientific ways of thought. If science is the only way to truth, and it has not yet reached the most important human problems, then the scientist qua scientist has nothing to say on those problems. He may end that line of thought with an arrogant sneer or a respectful smile at those who claim to have solutions and get the power to enforce them. Either way the ideology of scientism is a justification of surrender to the other ideologies, such as Realpolitik and nationalism, that dominate the minds of the power elite.
June 28, 1979
Quoted in Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America, 1945-47 (MIT Press, 1970), p. 30 ↩
A Peril and a Hope, pp. 29-30. Cf. Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (Knopf, 1975), pp. 200-202, for another description of this interview. ↩
Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts, pp. 184-185. ↩
Quoted in A Peril and a Hope, p. 50. ↩
The full history is superbly told in Herbert F. York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (W.H. Freeman, 1976). ↩
See his brief account in Sakharov Speaks (Vintage Books, 1974), pp. 30-34. I cannot help wondering if his conversion into a “concerned scientist” in the late Fifties was influenced by the accident that Zhores Medvedev analyzes in his new book, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals (Norton, 1979). ↩
See Nuclear Physics in Retrospect, edited by Roger H. Stuewer (University of Minnesota Press, 1979), for nuclear scientists’ reminiscences of “the happy thirties.” ↩
See B.J.T. Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy (Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 194-196. ↩
The dwarf quote is from Brecht, Collected Plays, V (Vintage, 1972), p. 94. Cf. the young scientist quoted in The Physicists, p. 408 n4: “What I’m designing may one day be used to kill millions of people. I don’t care. That’s not my responsibility. I’m given an interesting technological problem and I get enjoyment out of solving it.” The Keunos story is from Brecht, Galileo (Grove, 1966), p. 38. ↩
It is astonishing how that faith survived the hostility generated by the First World War, which persisted among scientists after generals and politicians had made peace. See B. Schroeder-Gudehus, Les Scientifiques et la paix (University of Montreal Press, 1978). ↩
It is recounted in the book he cites for his acclaim of Maoist intervention on behalf of traditional medicine. See Ralph C. Croizier, Traditional Medicine and Modern China (Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 187. Cf. David M. Lampton, The Politics of Medicine in China (Westview Press, 1977). ↩
See Wesley W. Spink, Infectious Disease: Prevention and Treatment in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (University of Minnesota Press, 1978), for a solid old-fashioned history of incontestable progress in medical knowledge. ↩