A. W. Spencer-Bragg (Harold Walsby): Are Scientists Inhuman?

I am at frightened man. All the scientists I know are frightened men, frightened for their lives and frightened for your life.
Dr. Harold C. Urey

Many people feel – and it is easily understandable – that the situation in which they find themselves to-day has come about without their knowledge, – that they have been let down by those to whom they entrusted their affairs. The politicians and the scientists, it appears, have been working secretly together, telling the public nothing of what was going on, and now, having led us to the brink of almost inconceivable destruction, they turn round and say: “Now it is up to you; it rests with the peoples of the world to ensure that there shall never be another war.” But the people cannot escape all responsibility for the actions of the politicians – the people put them in power. The scientists, however, are in a very different position – they had no mandate for the atomic bomb. The politicians may be guilty of incompetence, but it appears to the layman that the scientists have acted with what might almost be called malice aforethought in unleashing this terrible power upon an unsuspecting world.

Scientists, as we have already mentioned, are few in number; taking the term in its wider sense there are at most a few hundred thousand throughout the world, and from this numerically insignificant group arises most of our modern scientific progress – our progress and, it may be said, most of the chaos in the world to-day. The nature of their work tends inevitably to mark them off from the rest of humanity. Science is international; it has a language – mathematics – peculiar to itself; it has traditions and a “weltanschauung” which are outside the experience of most people. The scientists, for the great majority, form a community, a white-coated international, with interests distinct from those of the people as a whole. It seems sometimes as though knowledge becomes for them an end in itself, to be pursued regardless of its effects upon mankind.

Can the inventors of the atomic bomb – asks the layman – hold themselves free of responsibility for the deaths of thousands in Nagasaki and Hiroshima – and perhaps millions more in future atomic wars? Even if we regard the atomic bomb as just retribution for the wanton cruelties inflicted by the Japanese upon innocent victims it does not seem to alter the case, for Japanese scientists and those of the Germans were working on similar weapons. Prior to this discovery a defensive war was practicable; the Great Powers could rely upon their standing armies to hold off attack long enough to give time for organising resistance. That is no longer the case. When a small number of rockets can wipe out the nerve-centres of a country in a matter of seconds it becomes almost axiomatic that he who strikes first wins. Science has given the aggressor an overwhelming advantage.

It can perhaps be understood that the sub-atomic or nuclear physicists, working on abstruse formulae concerning the fundamental nature of matter, should form no clear picture of the ultimate use to which their work will be put; but when the use of bacteria as a killing instrument is the subject of investigation, the human significance of his work can hardly remain unrealised by the scientist. Yet we find progress in this sphere reported in a way which, for the layman, seems to denote little feeling other than a pride in accomplishment (observe the warning, in the final sentence of this extract, that the atomic bomb is not necessarily the last word in scientific frightfulness):

Although remarkable achievements can be recorded, the metes and bounds of this type of warfare have by no means been completely measured … it is important to note that, unlike the development of the atomic bomb and other secret weapons during the war, the development of agents for biological warfare is possible in many countries, large and small, without vast expenditure of money or the construction of huge production facilities. lt is clear that the development of biological warfare could very well proceed in many countries, perhaps under the guise of legitimate medical or bacteriological research. In whatever deliberations that take place concerning the implementation of a lasting peace in the world, the potentialities of biological warfare cannot safely be ignored.
(Scientific report quoted in The Times 4.1.46)

When one considers these and similar facts it is sometimes difficult not to feel a certain sympathy with those who regard science as an anti-social activity and scientists as inhuman creatures regardless of any suffering they may cause in their search for knowledge. But there is, of course, another side to the picture. The report on biological warfare quoted above includes statements of other results achieved, among them:

Development of methods for the rapid and, accurate detection of minute quantities of disease-producing agents. Significant contributions to knowledge concerning the development of immunity in human beings and animals against certain infectious diseases. Important advances in the treatment of certain infectious diseases of human beings and animals and in the development of effective protective clothing and equipment.

Almost invariably the weapons produced by science are also valuable instruments for the good of humanity. The characteristic attitude of detachment, the tendency to concentrate on the work in hand to the exclusion of such questions as the use ultimately to be made of it, arise not from any cynical disregard of suffering humanity, but from the recognition, painfully gained through centuries of trial and error, that only thus can man overcome the tyranny of his environment. Nevertheless it cannot be denied, whatever the intentions of scientists, that the products of their activities now constitute a greater threat than any which man has had to face from nature.

Continue reading 999 – Emergency! (1946)
The Child with the Loaded Pistol | Social Hari-Kiri | Are Scientists Inhuman? | The Rape of Science | Scientific Superstitions | While Rome Burns | The International Volcano | The Final Crusade