CONTROVERSIES among the military leaders of the nation have in recent months been the subject of headlines in the daily papers. As a consequence the general public has been given a glimpse of a serious problem which faces a democratic nation in this age of applied science. Quite apart from the merits of any type of organization of our defense establishment, quite apart from inter-service rivalries, even the casual reader must be disturbed by the obvious conflict of expert technical opinion; and even more disturbed that this conflict has remained unresolved at the highest level. Members of Congress and civilian officials of the Federal Government have become involved in intricate questions which in large part turn on judgments about scientific and engineering problems. There can be no doubt that politics and science, once quite separate activities, have become intermeshed and at times the grinding of the gears produces strange and disturbing noises.

By what procedures are a free people to determine the answers to such complex questions as to whether a large amount of the taxpayer's money is to be spent on the development of a given weapon or its auxiliary? Granted the matter must be left to the people's elected representatives and the President exercising through subordinates his power as Commander-in-Chief, nevertheless the problem still remains, how are politicians to resolve conflicts of opinions among scientists and engineers? Have we devised as yet even the first approximation to a satisfactory procedure for evaluating technical judgments on matters connected with the national defense, including atomic energy? Some who have been close to the postwar scene in Washington and have followed some of the research and development projects must be inclined to answer this question in the negative.

It is one of the purposes of this article to urge the need for careful attention to these questions, even to suggest one possible line of attack on what is a political and not a scientific problem. But before plunging into this area, so obviously full of controversy and of pitfalls, an analysis of the whole zone in which politics and science mingle may not be entirely out of order. For, after all, the issues which have been publicly raised about strategic bombing are but one small segment of a far larger field. The whole position of science, pure and applied, in relation to the collective activities of free men has altered within a generation. There are many divergent views on matters even more fundamental than the technical discussion of modern arms. What is the relation of science to technology? Is there a scientific method which can be applied even to the solution of the political problems of assessing science? What is the relative importance of investigations in pure science as contrasted with applied science? Is there immediate hope that some of the ills of modern society can be cured by the more vigorous scientific study of mankind? Can a unifying philosophy for a nation be found by making science the central core? These and a host of related questions crowd the page when one attempts the task of writing even a brief review of the status of science and politics in the mid-twentieth century.

Instead of beginning with a study of some of the dilemmas inherent in the workings of the political machinery of a free country, let us turn to the opposite pole and examine the condition of science in the other half of the divided world. (And we may note parenthetically that the problem of how to evaluate technical opinions must be as perplexing in Moscow as in Washington.) More than one observer in the course of the last two decades has been impressed by the deep concern for science manifested by the Kremlin. American scientists who by special invitation attended the celebration of the Russian Academy of Science in the summer of 1945 noted with satisfaction the rôle played by Stalin in the public ceremonies honoring the scientists. One might jump to the conclusion that the interest in science shown by the highest officials of Soviet Russia proceeded solely from their realization of the importance of modern science to technology. While this realization plays its part, it would be a mistake to regard it as the only or even the prime factor.

In the "History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," an official publication, the authors speak of the "tremendous part in the history of the party" played by a book of Lenin's on "Materialism and Empiriocriticism." This volume, published in 1909, the official historians of the Bolshevik Party go on to say, "safeguarded a theoretical treasure from a motley crowd of revisionists and renegades." It is important to realize that the controversy in which the writing of the future ruler of Russia is alleged to have played so critical a rôle involved the nature of "scientific truth."

Forty years and more ago, so we are told, the whole future of the Communist Party was threatened by false doctrines concerning the validity and meaning of scientific principles in the field of physics. Can one wonder that a monolithic political party which so interprets its own history must continue to regard scientific theories and their interpretation as within the field of official competence? As the history to which I have just referred states clearly, no revolutionary party can accept any such doctrine as unity based on diversity; on the contrary, the success of the party has from the first been based on a rigid conformity enforced by the expulsion of those deviationists who did not understand or would not understand the "science of the development of society" as laid down in the Marxist-Lenin theory.

There is no indication that those in control of the Party today are any less determined than their predecessors. Scientific theories that do not fit within the framework of the official version of dialectical materialism are clearly heresies; once convinced of this, the erstwhile proponents will of course publicly acknowledge their errors. Difficult as this may be for many in the western democracies to understand, the phenomenon of loyal sons of a church admitting their mistaken views and recanting is surely nothing new in history.

The fact that experimental findings in biology may be closely related to broad generalizations about heredity and thus have an impact on political and social theories obviously enhances interest in controversies in this particular field of science. But it is interesting to note that within the year Pravda has published at least one article devoted to a critique of modern theoretical physics. Matters that would not incite even the passing interest of ninety-nine politicians out of a hundred in the western democracies are treated therein as of deep significance. But any tendency to congratulate the Soviet Union on the high standard of sophistication of the readers of Pravda (at least as regards the philosophy of science) will be checked by a casual perusal of the article. For the stamp of orthodox dogma is impressed on every paragraph.

One may say that the Lysenko controversy merely shows that relatively ignorant and ruthless men are now determining party policy in the field of science. But is it not inherent in any authoritarian system that human beings with all their fallibility must determine from year to year what is true doctrine and what is not? Politics, often of the crudest personal sort, will influence their decisions. The proponents of dialectical materialism in all lands place the physical sciences in a high position and speak glibly and confidently of the scientific method. When one version of this philosophy is transformed into the official doctrine of a party which must harbor no dissenters, the freedom of scientific thought automatically disappears. This is not to say that within wide limits scientific inquiries may not be ardently supported and that technology may not flourish. But can there ever be genuine scientific freedom in a society where all philosophical opinions must conform to the official interpretation of party dogma? This is a question which inevitably arises when one studies the history of the Communist Party.

In an article on "Lenin and Philosophical Problems of Modern Physics," published in Pravda on May 12, 1949, S. I. Vavilov, the President of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., described the problem of physics and politics in the following revealing terms:

Soviet physics, as well as all Soviet science, long ago entered the life of the state, having directed all its forces, in the service of our native land, toward satisfying the requirements of the great work of building communist society.

Soviet physicists base their work on the world outlook of dialectical materialism, raised to a higher level by the genius-inspired works of Lenin and Stalin. But we cannot ignore the fact that some of our physicists still preserve idealistic survivals, supported chiefly by an uncritical reception of the literature of capitalist countries.

It is our urgent task to fight these survivals by merciless criticism and self-criticism. Their harmful influence is great. Physicists must become more active in fighting them. . . .

That a wholehearted acceptance of science by politicians can lead to the curtailment of the work of scientists seems to have been clearly demonstrated. The recent events in the Russian Academy which have so stirred the scientific world outside Russia would seem only to underline what all Marxists have long preached, that science is a social activity not separable from other human undertakings.

Jumping back to the United States, we would do well to examine briefly the changing status of the scientist in recent years. Those concerned directly with technology, the practical men, the inventors and the engineers, have long occupied a place of honor in our country. But the concern of the politician with science and scientists is a relatively new phenomenon. Unlike the situation in the Soviet Union, this is not a consequence of any development of a clear-cut national philosophy in which science plays a predominant part. Quite the contrary. The American public is quite uncertain as to the relation of the physical and natural sciences to the set of moral and spiritual values by which the average individual guides his daily life. Controversies on the relation of science to philosophy and religion are as vigorous today as ever before. Even within academic circles it is by no means clear that the changes in the outlook of physicists during the last 30 years have been assimilated into the thinking of professional philosophers. The advent of the scientists into the news and the growing interest of the nation in science are the direct consequences of World War II. But quite apart from the fact that certain new tools of war, notably the atomic bomb, the proximity fuse and radar, were products of scientific laboratories, there has been a growing appreciation in the last 50 years of the national importance of scientific progress. Today a government official or an elected representative in Washington thinking in terms of either increasing the military potential of the country or the industrial capacity will wish to consult both scientists and engineers.

Forty years ago the writer of an article such as this might have had to underline the fact that the scientist as well as the engineer was involved. He might have been worried lest the reader fail to realize the significance to a modern society of advances in pure science. The popularization of many fields of science in connection with medicine, public health, agriculture and industry as well as war has eliminated all such fears. In general terms the taxpayer and the stockholder are ready to take on faith the statement that science is important even if it costs the nation or the industrial corporation considerable sums of money.

Yet those who have had little or no contact with scientific research or with modern industrial production often equate science and technology. Now to do so is to misread history. From such a misunderstanding of the past relation of science to advances in the practical arts may flow mistaken judgments about the present and unreliable forecasts of the future.

Since an analysis of the nature of science is basic to all the questions considered in this article, a brief digression on this point may be in order. But first a word as to terminology. There is no unanimity of opinion among learned men as to a proper definition of science. One may use the word as the Germans use Wissenschaft, as covering the whole field of accumulative knowledge. To do so would be to include under the heading "scientists" not only investigators in the physical and natural sciences but mathematicians, logicians, economists, anthropologists, epistemologists, sociologists, archaeologists, historians, students of linguistics and many other scholars. But what the man-in-the-street means by science is something that has achieved startling technical results within the last two generations. And when the Marxists use the word "science" as St. Paul used the word "charity," they are in effect draping around themselves or their ambitions the whole fabric of the physical sciences with its glittering triumphs in the fields of both theory and practice. Furthermore, when the scientific method is glorified by its apostles and envied by many others, what is generally in mind is that method by which the physical and natural sciences are alleged to have made their progress. In short, the procedures of one segment of the whole enterprise of accumulating and advancing knowledge are in high repute because they have worked and are still working. And let us hasten to note that contrary to some captious critics the test, although a pragmatic one, is by no means solely in terms of practical applications, and certainly not in terms of dollars and cents.

With these thoughts in mind it might be well to define science in such a way as to concentrate attention on what have been the essential features of the intellectual enterprises that most people have in mind when they speak of science. Here is a definition which I venture to believe meets this requirement: "Science is an interconnecting group of concepts and conceptual schemes arising out of experiment and observation, and fruitful of new experiments and observations." The emphasis should be on the word "fruitful." The concepts and conceptual schemes must, of course, lead to relatively simple formulations of the previously recorded experimental observations; but to think of science as a set of static principles and theories is to fail to appreciate the true nature of the undertaking. The new philosophy which first attracted attention in the seventeenth century had a dynamic nature which if anything has been more and more prominent as the adventure has prospered through the centuries.

The definition of science just proposed places no restriction on the field of inquiry, but it does assign a central rôle to the development of new concepts and their relation to experiment and observation. If one accepts some such statement about science, several current formulations of "the scientific method" become untenable. Indeed, the whole idea of there being one scientific method disappears. To the extent that those who speak glowingly of the scientific method are promoting the use of hardheaded reason and trying to restrict the impact of emotional rhetoric, they deserve the support of all thoughtful citizens. But one may quarrel with their use of words. Because these enthusiasts cite the rapid progress of the experimental sciences as an example of the type of human activity to be encouraged, they must be asked to consider very carefully the history of those sciences which have progressed most rapidly, namely, astronomy, physics, chemistry and experimental biology. Now it is easy to show that these sciences would never have developed as they have in the last three centuries and a half if the scientific method were merely, as has been said, "the habit of seeking facts and accepting them, if they appeal to the logic of our sensory tests, no matter what they may do to previous generalizations."

Nor can the scientific method be accurately described as "the use of the working hypothesis." Common sense procedures in everyday experience have used the working hypothesis ever since the cave men. A naïve form of the "if . . . then" type of reasoning is employed by all of us every day. If this is a real brick and not a piece of red paper (working hypothesis), then when I kick it, I will stub my toe or not; after this mental exercise the trial is made. The chef seeking to improve a sauce argues in the same fashion: if I add more pepper, the taste will be improved or not. By such cut-and-try methods the fine art of cooking has advanced through the centuries. By similar trial and error procedures the methods of making metals, machines, tools of all sorts were developed long before the advent of science. What confuses many a writer about science and its methods is that the working hypothesis is indeed an essential element in the thinking of the experimental scientist, but not the sole element. The transition from common sense to science is continuous. The empirical procedures of the cook today or the artisan of the Middle Ages are combined in modern science with the abstract type of thought that comes from mathematics. The fruitful periods in the history of the experimental sciences have been the result of a curious interweaving of (a) limited working hypotheses as related to actual experimental manipulations, (b) working hypotheses on a grand scale which may or may not become new conceptual schemes and (c) deductive reasoning coupled with carefully defined terms.

It is interesting to contrast the activities of the eighteenth century assayists with the modern analytical chemist. Before people had any clear idea of elements or the nature of such fundamental chemical processes as oxidation, the devising of ways to determine the value of metallic ores was little different as regards methodology from improvements in the art of cookery. Men worked blindly without any theory to guide the way, and used working hypotheses on so restricted a basis as to justify calling their experimentation mere trial and error. But by such purely empirical trials they did develop fairly satisfactory procedures for assaying a variety of ores. The chemist today, on the other hand, has at his disposal a vast array of concepts and conceptual schemes (the theories of chemistry and physics) as well as a great body of scientific information. Like his predecessors of two centuries ago he must test his working hypotheses by experiment. There will be some empirical steps in his procedure of which he can say only "by trial and error I found so and so to be the best way of operating." But the degree of empiricism in the final method will be low as compared to the eighteenth century. The impact of theory on practice has been high.

Until the mid-nineteenth century the instances were few where the new scientific knowledge had reduced the degree of empiricism in the practical arts. Coke replaced charcoal in the manufacture of iron before anyone had formulated any general ideas about reducing ores to metals; the crucible steel process was widely used before anyone knew that the difference between iron and steel depended largely on the amount of dissolved and combined carbon in the iron. Here and there in the eighteenth century, and increasingly in the nineteenth, discoveries made in the laboratory affected industrial practice. Occasionally the new ideas incorporated in the expanding body of scientific theory were used as guides to practical improvements. However, only with the rapid development of the electrical industry and synthetic dye industry in the second half of the nineteenth century did a union of science and technology become so productive as to constitute a revolution. For in these new industries the use of scientific principles was essential and further progress required the employment of theory; pure empiricism proved highly unrewarding. Therefore, in the last third of the last century we find the scientists in the laboratories of the German universities and technical high schools not only advancing pure science, but training research men for industry and coöperating with industry. Scientific research as apart from engineering practice was beginning to have real industrial significance.

The pattern set in Germany and by the new industries was followed slowly in other countries. In this century the pace has quickened; scientific research has penetrated into almost all the older practical arts to a greater or less degree. Today science and industry are acknowledged partners. To understand the nature of this partnership it is well, however, to distinguish clearly between three types of experimentation: 1, the old art of trial and error -- empirical invention; 2, experimentation in which scientific theories play a predominant rôle and the aim is to improve a practical procedure (in industry, agriculture or medicine) -- this is applied science; 3, experimentation aimed at extending a conceptual scheme, testing a new concept, or obtaining information to fill in a gap in a systematic classification -- this may be called pure science. These three activities are differentiated in part by a difference in methods, in part by a difference as to goals. The work of the "pure scientist" may be defined as extending the boundaries of science without regard to the practical applications of new knowledge; the work of the "applied scientist" may be defined as reducing the degree of empiricism in a given industrial art.

What is the bearing of all this on science and politics? Simply this: today, managers of industry and public officials seem convinced that the greater the penetration of science into industry the better. Almost every industrial art (including all those concerned with the manufacture of weapons) has still a high degree of empiricism; but hardly one exists in which the degree of empiricism has not been diminished in the last 50 years by the introduction of more physics and chemistry. With this decrease have come rapid practical improvements. Therefore, looking at the immediate past, the hardheaded American citizen has become convinced of the importance of applied science. In short, science has proved to be a horse worth backing.

Investigations in science represent a leap into the unknown; betting on science is betting, it is not buying a sure thing. All trials of new procedures are uncertain, but recent history seems to show that gambles with applied science pay off better than those with purely rule of thumb inventions. Therefore, a society bent on material prosperity and involved in an armament race (at least temporarily) had better have the maximum amount of applied science. But in a given segment, the application of science sooner or later comes to an end unless new concepts are developed, or the conceptual scheme extended. The applied scientist reaches the dead end of a road and calls to his colleague in the university laboratory for new supplies of scientific knowledge. Whence it follows that the nation must speed up the advance of science itself. This means that large sums of money must be spent on another speculation, another type of gamble, adventures in pure science. The implementation of this conclusion through a National Science Foundation unfortunately still awaits Congressional action.

Scientists demand more money for the advance of pure science -- more money for research in the natural and physical sciences. To these claimants for support have been added in ever-increasing volume the voices of the proponents of more emphasis on research in the social sciences. Some have even suggested that we shall be bogged down in applying the fruits of research in the natural and physical sciences until the social scientists have made more progress in studying man and his institutions. To them more than one skeptic has raised the question, can there be a truly scientific study of human behavior? No writer on science and politics can dodge this issue.

We have seen that the Marxists have pinned their faith on science. To them, therefore, social science means the further extension of their own brand of scientific philosophy which acknowledges no limitations. A more cautious approach points to the slow growth of the sciences of physics and chemistry as illustrating the need for persistence and optimism in any intellectual undertaking. While the prenatal history of modern science can be traced far back into antiquity, few would challenge the thesis that something approaching a revolution occurred in the seventeenth century. New procedures followed a new outlook and soon proved to be very fruitful in certain areas; mechanics, including celestial mechanics, was built on sure foundations and elaborated in astounding proportions within three or four generations. But even when people had seen how the combination of a broad hypothesis, mathematical reasoning and experimentation could be prolific in certain fields, it required generations before progress was made in solving many other pressing problems. Is there here an analogy with the present status of psychology, anthropology, sociology, even branches of economics?

A really reliable crystal ball is needed for the answer. But since the desire for a more developed scientific study of human nature springs largely from the manifest troubles of the world -- that is, from practical considerations -- the analogy, if there be one, might well be directed to the progress of the practical arts (including medicine and agriculture). It might be appropriate, according to the definition of science adopted in this article, to consider studies about human beings "scientific" to the degree that new ideas and generalizations are evolved which are fruitful of more experiments and observations. Furthermore, if there be any parallelism between the extension of the generalizations and theories of physics and chemistry into the empirical procedures of the practical arts, the eventual impact of new ways of thinking about human problems on the age-old questions treated by Machiavelli might be regarded as quite certain. But as to the time which may be involved, one must be cautious in his predictions.

Very few scientists and philosophers have been successful prophets as to the speed of advance of the science of their day, or the direction of the progress or the long-range effects on the practical arts. For example, signs of increasing speed in the reduction of the degree of empiricism in the treatment of the ailments of mankind could be read with certainty at the turn of this century; but it would take an optimistic reading of history to find them in, say, 1840, even two generations after the chemical revolution and 200 years after Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood. We who live in an age carried away by a mixture of enthusiasm and horror as we contemplate the applications of science would do well to ponder the slow history of medicine. Dr. Beddoes in 1800 established a pneumatic institute in which his patients were made to breathe the gases discovered by the preceding generation of investigators. That he killed no one seems to be an unexplained example of his good fortune; that he provided the first research opportunities for one of the scientific stars of the early nineteenth century (Sir Humphry Davy) is quite certain. But are we to regard the doctor as a charlatan, a self-deluded quack, or as a pioneer in chemotherapy at least three-quarters of a century ahead of his time? With this question in view one may read with more sympathy about some of the more newsworthy unsuccessful attempts of social psychologists to measure the pulse of public opinion, or be less dissatisfied with the current methods of testing the skills and aptitudes of human beings.

We may or may not be on the threshold of a revolution in the scientific study of man or of society. But almost certainly through a slow and patient approach to human problems, by the evolution of improved techniques, considerable progress can be made in certain areas within the field of the social sciences. If so, politicians some day may be as much affected by the new knowledge as were the industrialists of this century by the work of the physicists and chemists. But that there is any magic formula, any new revelation as to methods which will transform the practical art of politics, seems extremely unlikely. We who are unable to isolate "the scientific method" from a study of the history of science can hardly share the enthusiasm of those who proclaim its virtues.

What then are we to do to answer the pressing practical questions that confront politicians, indeed, all leaders of human enterprise? The answer would seem to be, do not despair of pure empiricism; continue to use the accumulation of practical wisdom handed down through the ages; continue by trial and error methods to improve organizations of human beings, to devise better procedures for handling individual and collective problems. Those who argue for the scientific method in the social sciences often do so by analogy with the physical sciences. Yet they sometimes overlook the enormous advances made in the practical arts without benefit of science. Certainly no advances were made by arbitrarily discarding satisfactory methods but only by substituting better methods based either on trial and error experimentation or on the application of scientific knowledge. The example may well be followed by all who are pure or applied scientists in the field of human relations.

To wait on the results of the scientific study of man before courageously tackling complicated social situations might mean to wait for generations, possibly forever. We have to do the best we can with the tools and principles now at our disposal. Surely history can demonstrate that if we set out to improve governmental machinery, for example, this is no hopeless task. Take the case presented in the opening paragraphs of this article, the improvement of methods for the evaluation of research projects in the field of weapons and military appliances. This is an urgent need today. Perhaps it is as essential in totalitarian lands as in a democracy, but the frame of reference in the United States is peculiarly our own.

First of all, we must be aware of the issues involved; then we must experiment with various types of new social mechanisms, using historical knowledge, political theory, argument by analogy and, above all, common sense experience to guide the way. There seems no reason to suppose that even the cumbrous apparatus of government in a democracy cannot be adjusted to take care of the startling impact of science on problems of national defense.

No one need warn those who have been immersed in the day-to-day planning of the defense of the nation that they should adopt a cautious or even a skeptical mood in listening to technical experts, be they scientists or engineers. All experts are human and tend to be carried away with enthusiasm for their own ideas. Indeed, without this autointoxication few of the revolutionary changes in technology could have been accomplished. But the existence of a conflict of technical opinion on many, many details in all manner of new developments of importance to our security requires that we take a careful look at the procedures used in arriving at decisions. The President and Congress have the ultimate authority, but neither the Chief Executive nor Congressional committees have the time to settle the enormous number of issues which must necessarily arise in any research, development or procurement program. The worst way to make decisions is to resolve conflicts in favor of those with the loudest voice or the closest approach to political leaders. Propaganda and counter-propaganda on behalf of a new departure in an industrial concern would never be tolerated by good management.

Careful studies by staff officers and advice by outside committees are often helpful to the "line officer" (military or civilian) who in a chain of command must make decisions. But one can have grave doubts that these modes of operation bring out into the open all the conflicting views and relevant information. There is bound to be a tendency to compromise and side-step difficult decisions. Furthermore, the decisions made down the line may be too readily reversed higher up because there is inadequate documentation of the real technical issues involved. Perhaps something akin to the judicial process is what is required. An agency of the government faced with the type of technical problem here in question might establish regular procedures for "hearings" of experts who would be encouraged to present alternative solutions. Decisions of such technical tribunals might be subject to review, but the records would clearly indicate just what would be involved in a reversal of the "lower court." As in the judiciary or administrative machinery of government, it would take time to recruit the necessary personnel to man this type of organization, for this is no part-time hit-or-miss job that is being suggested. Laymen who understand science and scientists and are familiar with engineering and engineers rather than technical experts might well prove the most suitable men for this task of refereeing technical disputes.

Whether or not there be any merit in these suggestions for improving the assessment of scientific and technical problems related to the work of the Federal Government, the existence of a serious problem is abundantly clear. To repeat, this is but one illustration of an important change which has taken place within a generation. An historian 50 years from now writing of the midtwentieth century will certainly record that science and politics were by 1950 no longer to be regarded as two totally unrelated activities. He might well add that scientists and politicians were in this period to be found sometimes in amicable coöperation, sometimes in violent disagreement; only one thing seemed certain, the type of society in which each could go his own way with only a polite bow to the other had disappeared as irrevocably as the American buffalo from the plains.

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  • JAMES B. CONANT, President of Harvard University; Chairman of the National Defense Research Council, 1941-46; member of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission
  • More By James B. Conant