Science, The Public, and Social Change

Interview by Gabriel Matthew Schivone • ZCommunications • August 29, 2008

Author and activist Howard Zinn was one of the speakers at a critical social forum held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, on March 3, 4, and 8, 1969, in which MIT students and scientists had joined together and organized a research stoppage to protest the unexampled levels of U.S. government violence in Southeast Asia. The event known as “March 4” included some of the world’s most eminent and influential scientists coming together to make what they called a “practical and symbolic” gesture of halting their research activities to discuss the misuse of science in world affairs, particularly the relationship of American science—and the shared responsibility of American scientists—with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam.

Together with a powerful invocation (known as the March 4 Manifesto, signed by 48 MIT faculty) having been written for the event, addressed to the academic community and the public at large, the activities of March 4 (including several panels on engrossing subjects as intellectual responsibility and the impending perils of weapons of mass destruction) were organized into recognizing the “dangers already unleashed”—those which presented “a major threat to the existence” of humanity—while providing possible solutions and raising serious alternatives to overcome them.

To the small group of determined organizers and concerned scientists, reason for their actions was self-evident: As a heavily bloody and calamitous war was being waged by the most powerful country on earth—while the majority of its academic community observed with relative silence—the very gesture of leading world intellectuals halting their professional, daily activities before the public and the world in order to consider the human consequences of their scientific work was to say, quite simply, that their role as human beings precedes their professional title of “scientists.”

I sat down with Professor Zinn (who had participated in one of the March 4 panels entitled “The Academic Community and Governmental Power”) in his office at Boston University on Wednesday, July 23, 2008, to discuss some of the issues. (This dialogue is part of an ongoing collection of interviews and essays on the subject of March 4 being organized for publication. Note: Parts of the text have been expanded after follow-up correspondence between the authors.)


Science and War: A Macabre Dance

 GMS: Let’s start with the second resolution of the March 4 Manifesto: “To devise means for turning research applications away from their present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing social and environmental problems.” Would you explain the importance of this idea of scientific reconversion?

It’s been a long-standing problem of science being used for destruction or for construction. It goes back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki—it goes back to the atomic bomb. In fact, that probably was the first really dramatic instance of the use of the latest scientific knowledge to kill human beings. And the development of modern weapons technology—the atomic bomb and other weaponry—all that has become much, much more important in recent years as war has become more technological, and as the scientists have become more important in the making of war. So I would say that issue, which was put forward in the March 4 Manifesto, is even more important today. At that time, it was important because the war in Vietnam was going on, and there was a direct connection between science used for military purposes and the deaths of people in Vietnam.

What has been, and is, the relationship of American science and scientists with the State throughout history until today?

Well, until World War II, I don’t think the relationship between science and government was a particularly critical one. Now, sure, we had Alfred Nobel creating dynamite and therefore creating the possibility of weapons, bombs that used dynamite. In other words, there was always a scientific component to modern war. I mean, you can argue that as soon as guns became used, science became involved in their manufacture—rifles, machine guns, artillery. So, yes, there’s always been this connection. But it wasn’t until World War II, in as I said before, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki that this relationship between science and government took an enormous leap forward. Or, you might say, backward . And then science became inextricably intertwined with governmental policy—and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

What are some examples of scientists and intellectuals engaging their support of various war efforts?

 In the First World War, intellectuals (who had first declared themselves against war) rushed to support the war, carried away by government propaganda against the Germans. John Dewey, Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, lent their names and their prestige to the war effort. Historians organized a committee to put out pamphlets in support of the war.

In the Second World War, virtually all intellectuals supported the war. (Dwight MacDonald and a small group of Trotskyists were exceptions, of course.)

The most dramatic example of scientists involved in WWII was the Manhattan Project in which the greatest scientists in the nation and scientist-refugees from other countries joined to produce the atomic bombs which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was only one of these mobilized scientists—Joseph Rotblat—who quit the project rather than work on the bomb. Other scientists developed radar and the Norden bombsight.

Prior to the Korean War, scientists worked on the creation of napalm which was used in that war and again in Vietnam. In fact, the Dow Chemical Company became the target of anti-War protesters because of its role in producing napalm used in Vietnam.

A number of leading intellectuals rushed to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reflected in the pro-War editorials of the major newspapers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal.

Objectivity and American Science: Image and Reality

 Do you see any differences in the social sciences and the hard sciences concerning what some people call ideological control? Do you find one to be more or less prone to such constraints on themselves or their work than the other?

Let’s put it this way: I think the difference between the hard sciences and the soft sciences is very much exaggerated. And there’s a kind of traditional notion that scientists are less prone to subjectivity and ideology than social scientists—the historians and economists, and so on. But I think that’s a delusion, and I think that, actually, the same problems apply to both of them.

In the case of scientists, there’s more likely to be self-deception about objectivity. I think that social scientists are probably more ready to accept the fact that they’re not objective, but with scientists—just the very nature of science with quantitative data and experiment sort of creates the illusion of being objective and being free from political and ideological influences. But I would argue that it is an illusion and that, therefore, both hard and soft sciences are much closer together in that respect than most people think.

What do you think about using scientific method regarding human affairs? In other words, if one has such scientific training as we find in university, does it make it easier to analyze certain catastrophic situations like the Iraq War? For example, do you find it helpful as a historian using such quantitative and qualitative methods?

I’m very suspicious of the use of so-called “scientific data” to come to moral conclusions. For instance, in the arena of political science: Political scientists in the last few decades prided themselves in becoming more scientific. In fact, what used to be called “departments of government” soon changed their names to “departments of political science.” And the word “science” brought the so-called “political scientists” closer to the illusion that hard scientists have. And the fact that they were using quantitative data and statistical measurement made them think that they therefore were coming to more accurate conclusions about the world than they had before. I don’t think that’s true because I think the most important decisions are moral decisions. And no amount of quantitative data can really lead you to a correct decision on moral issues. And, in fact, they can deflect you from making moral decisions by sort of deceiving you about the scientific nature of what you are studying. So, I’m very dubious that using so-called scientific and quantitative methods brings you any closer to solving crucial moral issues.

The first point of the Manifesto, “to initiate a critical and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science and technology are of actual or potential significance”, stuck out to me differently than the others. It seems very basic to simply encourage critical thinking, especially among “educated” people who, it’s generally assumed, have been taught critical inquiry from an early age. Is this always the case? It seems always assumed that scientists are always objective, critical thinkers.

Yeah, well, of course, that’s one of the myths of science: that science is above and beyond ideology and politics. And, of course, science has always been tied into ideology and politics—certainly more and more in these sixty years or so since World War II. And I think it’s very important for scientists to recognize that there’s no such thing as neutrality in science; that your science has an effect on society in one direction or another. And if you hide that fact from yourself, well, you’re deceiving yourself and deceiving others about the role of science in society.

Here’s an interesting example from the University of Arizona, in my home town of Tucson: There’s a yearly memo proclaimed and circulated by the president of the university (the one most recently appointed being Robert N. Shelton) addressed to the campus community, very strictly barring all “political activity” for university employees. It encourages UA faculty and staff not to engage at all in political activity while on “university time” or with “university resources,” but rather to do be political if they so wish—”on their own time.” Now, although it is explicitly stated the memorandum is enforced to protect state funding and the outcome of elections, one of the implications is that, in order to be effectively objective in their scientific professions, and to be good scholars, there must be a calling for disinterested scholarship in the face or shadow of political matters.

This is the president of the University of Arizona?

Yeah, well, this just shows how little wisdom you need to become the president of a university. Obviously this president has no understanding of the fact that neutrality is impossible, that objectivity is a myth. All intellectual work has a moral component and works either on behalf of the human race or against it. And, in fact, to claim neutrality and to dissociate yourself from participation in the world of ideas and the ideological and real conflicts in the world is really to permit the world to go on as it was. In other words, to refuse to intervene—to refuse to use your energy, your talent, your knowledge for the betterment of the human race—means that you are allowing those people who have been in charge of policy to continue in their ways. It means that they can go in their ways unimpeded. They can do whatever they want because, essentially, you have withdrawn an enormous number of people who have potential power—brain power, political power—you’ve withdrawn them from the political arena. And you’ve left the field to the so-called “experts”—who are not experts at all—and whose continued dominance is actually a danger to the human race.

It is ironic that the university, which provides itself on its intellectual superiority, should discourage faculty and students from using their knowledge and their analytical abilities, their moral judgment to participate in the social struggles outside the university. In other words, the university then becomes the servant of the dominant powers in society, who prefer that knowledge be used only to maintain the status quo, to train young people to take their obedient places in the existing society rather than challenging the people in power.

 The Citizens Among Us

 Now, is it possible to drop out of this university system, as some have suggested, wanting nothing to do with it or its money because of the sheer amount of war collaboration? If so, is this necessarily the way to go, in your opinion?

Well, of course it’s possible to drop out of the system. It’s possible to say goodbye. But it’s very, very difficult because peoples’ livelihoods, peoples’ economic security is very tied up with their jobs. And so giving up your job becomes a very serious personal hindrance to the security of yourself and your family. That makes it very difficult to drop out.

Now, there are scientists who have refused to work on projects. There were a few scientists who refused to work on the atomic bomb. Joseph Rotblat, as I said before, left the Manhattan Project—he didn’t want to work on the bomb.And there’ve been other scientists who have refused to work on military-related technology but they do it at risk. They risk their jobs, their livelihoods. In other words, it’s possible to do it, but it’s difficult.

 Point Five of the Manifesto reads: “To explore the feasibility of organizing scientists and engineers so that their desire for a more humane and civilized world can be translated into effective political action.” How might an organized scholarship—scientists organizing themselves around such issues as dissent and non-participation—benefit society?

Well, a very important factor in making it possible for scientists to move from military projects to civilian projects is having the support of your colleagues. That’s why the growth of organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists or the organization of the atomic scientists who put out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is important as a support for individuals who want to follow their consciences rather than their financial success and careers. So, it’s still difficult, but it seems to me that when you get together with other people and you decide collectively that you are going to oppose the use of science for military purposes it becomes easier. And we have examples like that.

We have the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. There are thousands of physicians of the IPPNW, and they certainly have sort of made it a principle for them to speak out publicly. And they’ve been successful—not successful enough, obviously, but successful—in educating the public of the dangers of nuclear warfare.

I remember when the IPPNW came out with its study—this was in the 1980s—of what the effects would be on the Boston area from a nuclear blast. Well, it went into great and horrifying detail and, you know, I think that was instructive and educational for a lot of people. So, there’s great work that can be done by people in the sciences who are organized in that way.

 Why do you think that the possibility of abolishing war is so difficult for people to understand?

Well, one reason it is so difficult is that there’s a tendency to believe that what has happened in the past must inevitably continue to happen in the present and future. In other words, since the history of humankind, there’s been a history of repeated wars, almost continuous warfare. It’s very hard for people to accept the fact that this might come to an end. Indeed, Tuberculosis was a scourge all through the history of humankind and it was hard for people to accept the fact that it actually might be done away with. The history of warfare likewise has made it difficult for people to accept the fact that there could be a break with history and war could be abolished. That’s one reason.

Another reason is that there are certain wars that have been imbued with a grandeur and nobility, that makes people think that war can be useful, important, even necessary for valid human purposes. I’m speaking particularly about World War II.

After all the disillusionment that followed World War I, World War II made war acceptable again because it was a war against this great evil—fascism. And it is still today considered “the good war.” It is still today presented as the example of “the just war.” And while I seriously question this characterization of World War II, there is no doubt that its reputation has imbedded in people’s minds the idea that it is possible to have a “good war”, a “just war.” I think that is a great obstacle to people accepting the idea of the abolition of war.

 Going off your earlier comment on “experts”, a word that’s thrown around a lot in our society—I hear it a lot especially in university—is the word “professionalism.” It’s like a rule of propriety to people in various professions such as cooks, cleaners, retail and food service, artists, teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc, to “be professional”, and to know their place and not involve themselves in matters that are deemed “political.”

Yeah, well, this is a recipe for disaster. That is, to have everyone in society work only within their profession, within their job. Not to look outside the boundaries of their job means to withdraw as a citizen. It’s actually the opposite of democracy. Democracy requires the full participation of all citizens, whatever their occupation, whatever they do, whether they’re dishwashers, or college professors, or scientists. For them to not devote some part of their lives to examining the larger society in which they work is to really drop out of the social structure and allow a small number of powerful, political leaders to do what they want, uninhibited—uninhibited because there’s no opposition, because everybody in society is paying attention only to their profession, essentially neutered, essentially helpless. So, as I said, this is the opposite of democracy which requires the full participation of everybody in the political process of decision-making.

 You’ve often mentioned an interesting quote from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau about professionalism.

Rousseau wrote: “We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians and painters in plenty, but we have no longer a citizen among us.” He was pointing to the specialization in modern times, in which people were divided into professional groups who concentrated their attention on their narrow specialties, leaving the important decisions in society—war and peace, wealth and poverty—to be made by professional politicians. This was a surrender of moral responsibility by people who concentrated on becoming “successful” in their own field, and not risking their safety and economic security by entering the arena of social struggle and moral decisions.

 Tying into our discussion: what do you think of the notion sometimes referred to as the “responsibility of the intellectual”, that is, the more privilege you have in society, the more opportunity and choices you have and, therefore, the more responsible you are for the atrocities of your own government, since you are more able to speak out against them?

That is an interesting point. Intellectuals have a respected place in society, and have the ability to communicate, through writing and speaking, to the larger public. Therefore, they have a moral responsibility to use this special power on behalf of humane values, on behalf of peace and justice. Their failure to do so is therefore especially to be condemned.

 Scientists pride themselves on the ability to make pure science and come to exact scientific conclusions, but it’s also often assumed therefore that these sort of people—people with $100,000 educations, degrees and technical specialties—are better equipped than others to act as experts or to reveal gospel and come to moral conclusions regarding human affairs. Do you agree? I mean, what do you think people need, then, to be able to make moral decisions, if not some kind of “special” credentials?

Sheer knowledge, whether of science, history, or any of the disciplines, does not make anyone more capable of making moral decisions, which only require common sense, common decency, compassion—all of which are traits possessed by all human beings, regardless of how much “education” they have had.

During the Vietnam War, for instance, all surveys showed that the people with the most education were most likely to support the government in that immoral war, and people with only a high school education were more likely to oppose the war.

 Students and Social Struggle

 During the Vietnam War it was students who originally envisioned and organized the March 4 event. What importance do the issues we’ve been discussing today have on young people and students?

I would argue that there is nothing more important that an education can do than to turn the student away from the narrow confines of material success in the present society. That is, to turn the student away from merely becoming a cog in the machinery of current society and have the student think in broader terms of social justice and about creating a better world.

Unfortunately, our education system is geared to prepare young people to become successful within the confines of the present society. It doesn’t prepare them to question this present society, to ask if fundamental change is needed. And so I believe the most important thing education can do is to take the students out of this narrow concern with learning what they need to be successful in their profession and make them aware that the most important thing they can do in their lives is to play a role in creating a better society, whether it’s stopping war, or ending racial inequality, or ending economic inequality. This is the most important thing that education can do. And I think our most wise of educators—our philosophers of education, like John Dewey—have recognized this as the critical problem of education.

 In your speech at March 4 you spoke of the young Harvard and MIT students, who, along with other classes of people, became enthralled by the fervor of the war effort during the First World War and eagerly joined the army under slogans like the one in the ironic mural in the Widener Library at Harvard that reads, “Happy is he who in one embrace clasps death and victory.” However, you noted that things had changed for the young students of MIT and Harvard during the Vietnam War who were obstreperous and angry at the government. It’s interesting to me that young people like Harvard & MIT kids possess often times debilitating privileges of race and affluence yet there are examples of these kind of students placing themselves at the barricades, as it were, sacrificing as much as others who are more recognizably oppressed. What do you think accounts for this?

I think it’s because young people have an inherent desire to do something important in society. And, therefore, if that desire becomes strong enough it overcomes whatever in their background might induce them to play a passive role. And so I’m not surprised that students at Harvard and MIT would become active.

But, of course, during the Vietnam War it’s very hard to make a distinction between elite institutions and ordinary colleges in terms of student activism. Because, in the case of the Vietnam War, student activism took place all through the spectrum of universities from the most prestigious to the least prestigious. Sure, students at Harvard and MIT were active, but students at Kent State, just an ordinary state university, were very, very active. It’s just that students at Harvard and MIT, when they became active, their activity was especially noticeable because of the prestige of their universities. But, in fact, there was no particular superiority of Harvard and MIT in terms of activism when you looked at activism around the country.

 A Power Governments Cannot Suppress

 Also in your speech at March 4 you suggested developing independent sources of power to counter the use of force and deception by governments. You stated that, “in a society held together by falsehood, knowledge is an especially important form of power.” But how can knowledge overwhelm brute force when it comes down to it?

 Well, knowledge can’t, by itself, overwhelm brute force. It’s only when that knowledge is translated into organization and mobilization, and that knowledge is reaching large numbers of people who then can resist the power of government, or corporations, or the military. I mean, if you are an ordinary worker, and you have the knowledge that you are being exploited as a worker, that obviously isn’t enough. But if there are enough people in the workplace who have this knowledge and then transform what they know into organizing themselves, then they can act in unison and they can create a power which the most powerful corporation cannot overcome. Essentially, corporations and governments depend on an obedient population to maintain their power. If that population—that is, the people who work for the corporation, the citizens of the government, the soldiers in the military—withholds its support, stops cooperating, then the supposed all-powerful corporation, government, military become helpless. So it’s a matter of transforming that knowledge into organized power.

A most special thanks is extended to Mary E. Barnes for her invaluable aid as an editor.

Published at ZCommunications • Aug. 29, 2008


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