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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

Pure Science – And the Prick of Conscience

Part II

(7 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 14, 7 April 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The refusal of the scientist Norbert Wiener to transmit information on guided missiles to another scientist is an honorable act. It is all the more noteworthy at a time when the great body of scientists seems content to bask in the public esteem which now accrues to them and to savor the comforts of the unexpected salary increments.

Wiener’s position, as he himself recognizes, is of limited utility, and he has been successfully attacked by persons whose moral criteria are lower than his but whose logic is more consistent. He is also susceptible to criticism on broader grounds. On the basis of his present position he cannot successfully answer the question: Does not the suppression of some scientific information predicate the suppression of all new data, since no one at the moment can tell when such data might be militarily useful in the future?

How can a person be opposed to indiscriminate destruction of civilians by controlled missiles and condone similar carnage in “normal” warfare through area bombing, for instance? Further, what serious differentiation can be made between the civilian and the civilian-soldier? Why is it moral to kill one and not the other?

And in blaming the military for putting new discoveries to perverse use Wiener is on very shaky ground. It was the scientists, in fact, who called the attention of the army and navy to the military potentialities of nuclear fission, and it was they who achieved the adoption of the atomic research program in spite of the bureaucratic myopia of the big brass. No less a figure than Albert Einstein, the one-time pacifist, was an initiator of this campaign.

The generally accepted concept of the scientist as locked in his laboratory, free in time, place, and social conditions in his search for absolute truth must be heavily qualified. Science has always been closely tied to the exploiting class. Heretofore this class has constituted the only serious source of the paid leisure necessary for scientific research. Under these conditions science has usually very directly served the immediate aims of the dominant class. Pasteur began his experimental work at the behest of the French wine industry. “Pure” science often has a derivative character, flowing out of such practical work. Other free research was confined to poorly endowed universities and. was often conducted in professors’ spare time.

What is new now is that scientific investigation is experiencing the centralization and monopolization which capitalist society as a whole is going through. The individual today, unlike the individual in Newton’s time, has neither the mental or laboratory resources to conduct significant, work. Research has become collective. The age of great individual syntheses or scientific discoveries is over.

Only big business and more latterly – given the increasing world tendency toward state intervention – only the government itself is able to make available sufficient resources. During the war Harvard, MIT, and Columbia received a total of more than $200 million dollars in research contracts. Atomic energy research in universities alone probably cost in excess of $100,000,000.

Given the global political commitments of the United States and the contemplated war against Russia, it is inevitable that scientific research should fall under the control of the military, like so many other aspects of our life. Business Week put it bluntly enough: “The odds are getting better all the time that pure scientific research will become, permanently, a branch of the military establishment.”

The Scientist and Growing Regimentation

This regimentation of sections of the middle class is the complement of the repressive measures currently being taken against labor. What is foreshadowed here is what Hitler brought to a conclusion with the destruction of the labor movement and the assignment of some of the best brains of Europe to work on rocket planes, buzz bombs, poison gas, ribbon parachutes, supersonic wind-tunnels, and similar socially useless projects.

Most United States scientists, like their Nazi counterparts, sleep well of night, untroubled by the social implications of their work. A few, like Wiener, have revolted. Unfortunately, this revolt takes place against a backdrop of traditional United States political primitivism, upon which is superimposed the well-known political naiveté of the highly specialized scientist or engineer.

Hence the best of them can succeed only in making what inevitably must remain a brave but utopian gesture. Wiener wants a form of limited warfare. This was possible and inevitable in the period between Grotius and Napoleon. Even if such a type of warfare were desirable, it is completely impossible in the epoch of monopoly capitalism, which in the military realm means the total mobilization of all resources – actual and potential.

Other scientists speak vaguely of a world state, This is closer to being meaningful. But it is possible only on a socialist basis. For only socialism eliminates the economic and political causes of modern war.

And only socialism can transform the scientist from the blind mole of capital which he is today into the trailblazer of society which he should be leading humanity to the horizons beyond horizons which, mysterious and beckoning, lie challenging the human intellect, will, and imagination.

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