A. W. Spencer-Bragg (Harold Walsby): The Child with the Loaded Pistol

We cannot stop and stand still even if we would; we are committed to further progress or, at least, further change. The knowledge and power which science has given us must inevitably carry us on with a frightful momentum.

Prof. W. McDougall

The enormous technical advances made by physical science in recent years and the harnessing of these advances – with spectacular but terrifying success – to the making of war, have served grossly to distort, for the great majority of people, the proper aspect, purpose and place of science in human affairs. It is not too much to say that because scientific discovery is becoming more and more linked with human misery and suffering, science is coming progressively more into disrepute with millions of ordinary men and women who do not understand its real position in society. Now, this is much more than just an unfortunate state of things for the good name of science and the public reputation of the scientist. If it involved no more than that, then science could afford to remain broadly indifferent, and the matter would be – though unfortunate – of relatively minor importance. But in a world which, with increasing and dangerous urgency, is becoming, above all else, in need of rational scientific management of its economic, social and political life, the estrangement between science and the average citizen is no less than disastrous. For it is upon this common and rather natural antipathy against science, which large masses of ignorant people undoubtedly have, that reaction and fascism play, and which they exploit for all they are worth. Especially does fascism fight tooth-and-nail the application of rationalism and science to social life: for social science is the arch enemy of the hysterical irrationalism, the barbaric intolerance, cruelty and violence that everywhere characterise fascist reaction.

Science can thrive and develop only on nourishment which includes tolerance, rationalism and freedom of thought and expression. Where these do not exist it remains stunted and warped. Mass antipathy towards science – providing, as it does, a vast breeding ground for reactionary political faiths and ideas – constitutes, therefore, a danger to both science and human society. Behind this real danger of the recovery of fascism, or what is the same, its regrowth under some other guise, looms the dark, terrifying shadow of the atomic bomb. For we can be quite certain that, should fascism ever recover its power – and there are plentiful signs, as we shall see, of its attempting to do so – it will not hesitate to use atomic bombs or to threaten whole nations with atomic annihilation to gain its diabolical ends. Had German fascism won the race for atomic energy these words would never have been read or even written – Britain would have assuredly been wiped out. Fortunately for the democracies, however, most of Europe’s best physical scientists were refugees from fascism and with us.

Science and society, then, have vital and fundamental interests in common – interests which concern their very survival and progress. Men of science can therefore no longer afford the luxury of bland unconcern with political affairs and social trends which are inimical to these mutual fundamental interests. Scientists and scientifically-minded people are gradually being compelled by sheer force of circumstances to take a scientific interest in social affairs – as distinct from a mere biased political interest. Increasing numbers of them are being forced to bring the unprejudiced scientific mode of thought to bear on the problems of economic and ideological conflict in society. And, in the process, as at the beginning of most scientific inquiry, they are due for a few salutary shocks and surprises. Once again, cherished illusions must go overboard.

In the first place, scientists – and those who are interested in science and support it – must give up the dangerous and erroneous assumption that the present pass to which society has been brought is none of their affair, that science is in no way responsible for the existing situation. Science is largely responsible in two ways – the first, by commission, the second, by omission: (a) by providing a greatly irrational and unscientifically-managed society with new discoveries, prodigious physical powers and revolutionary inventions which are used in a manner that results in large-scale economic distress, political reaction and world war; (b) by ignoring, and failing to study scientifically, the effect and consequences of its own activity upon human society – particularly the economic, psychological and ideological effects of its activity upon the vast unscientifically-minded masses who, in the last resort, are the source of all political and economic power – and therefore, by failure to counter and control the growing mass antipathy and aversion for science (an aversion which, heightened and culminating in the widespread fear of the atomic bomb, can easily lead, once again, to mass sympathy with irrational, anti-scientific political reaction, and thence to World War No. 3).

Considering (a) alone, organised science could only put an end to (a) by putting an end to itself; i.e., by the cessation of all scientific activity, Quite obviously this is impossible – and even if possible, would not solve any problem. Indeed, it would clearly end civilisation and create wholesale chaos. The solution demands, then, not less science, but more science: for the problem is one of a more rational (i.e., scientific) control of society. Still another demonstration of the basic mutual interests of science and civilised social order.

However, when we come to consider (b) – and (a) in relation to (b) – quite another aspect emerges. Science cannot put an end to itself, but it can, and does, develop itself and extend its territory. The scientific management of human society demands, not only the moral support of organised science, but its scientific concern and activity. The time has gone for pious hopes and mere moral support – the time now is for action. This means, firstly, the organised scientific study of the problem; science must extend and develop its broad domain in the social and ideological realm. Here, in the application of scientific method to this realm-a realm where unverified assumption still lords over established fact and here only, can the solution lie. Where moral support for a scientifically-run social order is desperately needed, is not so much among the tiny scientific minority of the community – who have given it moral support for generations now – but among the vast mass of the population. And it is just there where it is conspicuously lacking. This is the crux of the whole matter.

The twin problems of the increasing social misuse of science, on the one hand, and the resulting growth of mass antipathy against science, on the other, constitute a vicious circle; they are really one problem. How can this vicious circle be broken? Hitherto, scientists have tended to adopt the policy of what may be called “political laisser faire.” They have said, in effect, “Don’t meddle in politics. Keep pumping more and more scientific activity and its products into the community. The more we do this, the sooner, eventually – through the increasing, widespread distribution and use of scientific instruments, machines, devices and other products – will everyone become scientifically-minded. The peoples of the world will then solve their political problems rationally and scientifically, and we shall have the scientifically-managed society.” Unfortunately for the scientists – and, of course, for the rest of the world – the assumption was, and still is, ill-founded, unverifiable and unscientific.

What the scientists have failed clearly to observe is this: the material economic effects of scientific activity upon human society are greatly unequal to its intellectual ideological effects. That is to say, whereas the material products of scientific discovery have directly affected the way of life of practically everyone throughout the globe, the direct effect of the intellectual products of scientific discovery (scientific ideas and attitudes) on the peoples of the World remains – comparatively – almost negligible. It is this discrepancy between the respective effects on society of science’s material and intellectual products which most scientifically-minded people still fail to distinguish. Let us try and get a clearer and more concrete picture of this discrepancy.

Human society to-day, despite the ravages of six years of the most destructive war man has ever experienced, comprises something like 2,000,000,000 individual members. Suppose the present average birth-rate throughout the globe to be l5 per thousand – approximately the present low birth-rate for England and Wales (which in 1042 was 45 per cent. of what it was in l.870). This gives us a gross reproduction rate for the whole world of 3,000,000 per year – an extremely conservative figure which errs greatly, but on the right side. (The actual gross reproduction rate for India alone is well over 5,000,000 per year – not far short of 1,000 per hour! This is, however, considerably offset by a very high mortality rate.)

Now, modern science, upon which this gigantic world society mainly rests. has been created, as Professor Haldane has pointed out, by “a few thousand men and a few dozen women” with the scientific outlook. Suppose, however, we place the total number of those throughout the world who think scientifically and possess the scientific mode of thought, as about 3,000,000. This means, even with estimates which favour the assumption of growing mass rationality, that the yearly addition to the overwhelmingly unscientific population of the world is equivalent to the total number of scientifically-thinking people. It should also be borne in mind that, of the total number of scientifically-minded people, only a proportion carry over their scientific outlook into thinking about social and economic problems; and again, of this latter proportion, only a tiny minority carry the scientific outlook into problems of social psychology, i.e., into the realms and problems of political and ideological conflict.

Of the two factors chiefly responsible for the production of the scientific consciousness – the economic factor and the hereditary-mental factor – it should also be remembered: (a) that the economic demand and incentive for the scientific frame of mind – with the detailed study it involves – is relatively very small, since even in a highly and scientifically mechanised world a scientific outlook is not required of mere machine operators; and (b) that it has already been established that the birth-rate is much lower and is declining much more rapidly among those of the higher grades of intelligence than among those of the lower grades.

Thus, though the scientifically-thinking minority of world society may be a growing minority, there is no evidence to support the assumption that this minority will ever become a majority. On the contrary, if present general trends continue, all available evidence indicates that, relative to the more rapidly-growing unscientific section of the community, the scientific minority is becoming smaller.

These facts, which are not properly appreciated by most of those who anticipate the widespread dissemination of the scientific attitude, are of the most salient importance in any sober consideration of the possibilities of a scientifically-integrated social order and in contemplating the future of our still largely irrational civilisation – in whose hands science has placed, with the arrival of atomic energy, a relatively easy means of self-destruction.

Some years ago Dr. Ernest Jones, the eminent psycho-analyst, compared society to a child playing with a loaded pistol. “Loaded pistol” now seems almost ludicrously inadequate as a metaphor for our present powers of self-destruction, but the principle still applies. Dr, Harold C. Urey, who helped to produce the atomic bomb, paints a graphic picture of the future we have to expect should our society once again run amok, as it has too often done in the past:

I have never heard – and you have never heard – any scientist say there is any scientific defence against the atomic bomb … thousands die within the fraction of a second. There is nothing left standing. There are no walls. They are vanished into dust and smoke. There are no wounded. There are not even bodies. At the centre, a fire many times hotter than any fire we have ever known has pulverised buildings and human beings into nothingness … The V2 and the atomic bomb, militarily speaking, are made for each other … Such a bomb exploded at Euston Station would blast the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey into powder … The world has become much smaller and more explosive … Nations are crowded into a very small space as considered by standards of the supersonic rocket and the atomic age. The outbreak of an atomic war would smash our house of civilisation – smash it beyond human comprehension. Those who even think of an atomic arms race, those who boast of battleships and air power, those who speak of using national force to maintain peace, simply do not understand this crowded house of fear. We will eat fear, sleep fear, live in fear, and die in fear …

This is indeed the year Atom Bomb One. It has opened most ominously … We must waste no time if we plan to be alive in A.B. 5 or A.B. 10.

(Reported in John Bull, 5-1-46)

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