A. W. Spencer-Bragg (Harold Walsby): The Rape of Science

.”.. the politicians and statesmen are not fit to handle modern scientific inventions and discoveries.” – Dr. Ernest Boris Chain.

The search for knowledge is among the noblest endeavours of which mankind is capable, yet now every advance in this direction seems but one more step towards our self-destruction. In the nineteenth century there was a general belief that science was well on the road toward a solution of the fundamental problems of the physical universe; an era of wealth and happiness was anticipated such as the world had never known. The problems – or some of them – have been solved; others have arisen which the nineteenth century did not suspect and these also have been largely solved; man has tapped a source of power such as not even the wildest dreamers of preceding ages had dared to conceive – and with it all we seem to make little real progress towards the vision of a united, peaceful world.

How has this come about? Is it that man has released forces which are physically beyond his power to control? This is not the reason. A catastrophic release of atomic power is not likely to occur by accident; what we have to reckon with is the danger of its intentional use in warfare. Man can control the source from which the sun draws its energy, but the movements of the society which wields that power are almost entirely beyond his control; we can bend the forces of nature to our will, but our impotence in the face of those social forces leading to distrust between nations, to rivalry in armaments and eventually to war compels us to use our powers for ends which we are far from willing. Science is permeating our society with ever-increasing rapidity but it is distorted, its powers misused, its products perverted, until science itself is brought into disrepute.

Recent months have seen a considerable change in the attitude of politicians and public towards science. The atomic bomb has done more than centuries of patient research to establish science as a power in society. The scientists are not unaware of this, and for the first time there are signs – particularly in America – of their organising as a political force. This may be a portent; as yet it remains true that the power of the scientist ends when he leaves the laboratory; his function is to produce discoveries; he has no more say than any other voter in deciding the ends to which they shall be put. It was, for example, not the scientists but the politicians who decided that the atomic bomb should be used on great cities without first demonstrating to the Japanese its irresistible power on waste land. Whatever may be the position in future, science is still subservient to politics.

Not science but politics is responsible for the use made of scientific discoveries, and a heavy responsibility it is. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that science is only taken seriously when its products can be turned to destructive ends. Professor Oliphant, one of the leading authorities on the atomic bomb, has stated:

.”.. to sell the idea of atomic energy to the authorities in London and Washington was a much harder task than anything carried out in the laboratories. Scientists knew in 1938 that atomic energy was possible. but it was impossible to engender any interest in the matter. It was only because they were able to offer a weapon that the job went ahead at all.
(Reported in the Daily Worker 5.12.45. Our italics.)

The atomic bomb now dominates the scene; on a smaller scale but of comparable significance is the constant failure, for political reasons, to take advantage of the positive benefits science has to offer, the repeated perversion, for political ends, of scientific techniques and discoveries. That these facts are familiar emphasises the extent of the problem.

In Germany before the war science was directed to the production, among other substitutes, of ersatz rubber; this was about five times as costly as natural rubber and something like one-third as efficient. At the same time production was being restricted in the rubber plantations in order the keep up the price. (The position was very similar in regard to the heavily subsidised production of beet sugar in Britain.) Much has been made recently of the use of Asdic submarine-detecting apparatus for tracing the herring shoals; this will presumably make for larger catches – yet, just before the war, herring by the million were being thrown back into the sea while one-third of the population of Britain suffered from malnutrition. Geologists, engineers and workers by the thousand combine to produce gold from the bowels of the earth, in order that it may be buried in America. Research designed to increase agricultural production is proceeding rapidly; farming, which used to be more than any other major industry a matter of tradition and rule of thumb, is becoming more and more a scientific technique; new machines and methods of controlling parasites are being developed, new strains of wheat resistant to disease are being produced. But of all methods of producing food the most inefficient is that which results in full granaries and empty stomachs.

These and other absurdities, the present position where the products of science cast the shadow of annihilation over every man, woman and child on the planet, arise from the frustration of control over nature by the lack of any effective control over society. On the one hand we have the rational, integrated thought of natural science, and on the other a confusion of political theories and outlooks, all based on largely uncritically-accepted assumptions concerning human nature. So it comes about that every development in science is a step toward the destruction, not necessarily of civilisation, but certainly of the irrational basis of our existing political and economic structure. Politics is one of the last strongholds of irrational prejudice and uncritical assumption, and science in its development inevitably comes to attack that stronghold, firstly by making possible new productive methods which cannot be integrated within the political structure, and secondly in that this conflict itself becomes recognised as a problem for scientific solution, leading to a scientific study of politics. But as yet this second phase has hardly begun; the science of man is in its infancy; in politics irrational factors remain dominant and science is prostituted to prejudice.

The subservient position of scientists, the fact that they are not allowed to hold administrative positions in the British Civil Service, is significant but is only a symptom. It does not necessarily follow that because a person is expert in some branch of natural science he is thereby fitted to solve the problems of government, and indeed we find that many scientists adhere to one or another of the competing political groups (frequently the Left-wing), accepting its assumptions almost as uncritically as any layman. The crux of the matter is that scientific method is largely excluded from the realm of politics.

We must not regard this situation as being entirely, or even principally, the fault of politicians, for in the political sphere the scientists are far from having reached agreement. There is no established system of principles and laws, no systematised and classified body of evidence concerning human nature – particularly as regards the intellect, beliefs, ideologies, etc. – which can claim general acceptance as the basis for a science of politics. Science, by reason of this omission, is largely responsible for its own degradation.

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