Oppenheimer Stresses Scientists' Responsibilities in Policy-Making
The scientist has a responsibility to make sure that society considers the larger implications of policy decisions when they may affect the course of history, J. Robert Oppenheimer '26 told a Sanders Theatre audience in the seventh of the William James Lectures yesterday afternoon.
Speaking again before a near capacity crowd, the physicist said there will be decisions in the future when the scientist must step out of his role as a creator of knowledge to make certain that society understands that there are more important questions involved in some decisions than are superficially indicated.
Using the example of the decision by the United States not to restrict the use of atomic and nuclear weapons to reprisal, he explained how the government reaffirmed this decision at the end of World War II and subsequently, perhaps without reference to the ultimate questions involved.
Oppenheimer said he was not sure that this was the right decision, but felt that the government had almost deliberately avoided its larger implications.
Oppenheimer outlined three major duties of the power, or policy-making, element of society. The first was to insure that in this complex world people do not get the impression, through propaganda, that everything is simple and straightforward.
Second, that though certain things must be kept secret for political reasons, the larger directions and attitudes of policy problems must be made known to the people.
And third, that the powers of society must show a deference to the accomplishments of knowledge, and not philistinely scorn it.
During the first half of the lecture, the physicist rounded out his discussion of complementarity (the existence of two equally useful but mutually exclusive theories) and its usefulness in clarifying the problems that arise in the science of man.
There are, he said, two kinds of applications of complementarity. First, there is the "hard" sense where it directly clarifies problems and logically resolves paradoxes, such as the apparently complementary relation between studying the behavior of a man through his action, and studying it through his testimony as to his motives and thoughts.
The second way in which complementarity may be used is to bring man to the realization that though he must always strive for order in knowledge, he must concurrently realize that there are limitations on that knowledge imposed by the scope of human reason and experience.