Science Can't Accommodate Cold War Demands

SCIENCE IN THE CAUSE OF MAN, by Gerard Piel '37. Knopf. 297 pp. $5.

AS publisher of "The Scientific American," Gerard Piel has a professional interest in problems of information exchange, not only between scientists, but between the researchers and laymen. Most of his nineteen essays collected here discuss the conflicting demands of national security and intellectual freedom. Security demands secrecy; science requires an unrestricted interchange of ideas on an international level. In recent years, the two have seemed irreconcilable.

Piel does not advocate abandonment of secrecy; but he warns that the American military classifications system is clumsy and misused, while Cold War security measures are encroaching on the rights of the individual scientists as free citizens.

He correctly observes that classifying a scientific discovery will not prevent its subsequent discovery by the Russians; it merely creates a small time lag between our advance and theirs. The advantage gained is generally too small to be significant, and arms race "gaps" (the bomber gap, the missile gap, the test gap) are political trump-ups.

At the same time, stifling information makes it difficult for scientists to exchange ideas. "Work has meaning only as it is connected to the general fund of knowledge and thereby established as a base for further increase of knowledge." He observes that to stop publication of work done in one field may hinder the progress of others. Historically, significant advances have been the result of cross-fertilization: solution of a problem in one area leads unpredictably to the solution of another problem in an entirely unrelated field.

As both Piel and C. P. Snow, Science and Government, secrecy creates a further danger necessarily limits the number of people making high-level scientific decisions; government becomes "a private affair." This is undesirable in a state ruled by democratic principle. It leads to a high percentage of unwise decisions, a tendency towards authoritarianism, or, at least complacent and uninformed voters.

If the layman is hampered by ignorance, the researcher is truly strung by elaborate checking , loyalty oaths, and clear procedures. Piel deplores "the promotion of conform and notes: "Everyone who freedom and science must be concerned at the present authoritan drift in our culture." Undeniably, scientific effort is impaired. The individual scientist is regarded as a natural resource, a weapon to "give the modern state its military power. This is not healthy. Furthermost there is excessive emphasis on technology and applied science, with responding neglect of pure science.

Many government officials believes pure, basic research is "useless" science, totally unrelated to technology. Former Secretary of Defense Chairman E. Wilson issued a widely publicized statement to the effect that he didn't care why apples turned brown when cut open and he didn't see the of supporting someone who wanted to find out.

But even the most superficial examination of the relationship between pure and applied science indicated that which must come first: theoretical advances precede practical application.


As Piel notes, Americans in the past have been singularly fortunate in that most of their pure science research was done by someone else. During the nineteenth century, all the important innovations upon which we based our technology were made abroad. And even in twentieth century nuclear physics, the United States -- first country to develop the atomic bomb -- exploited the theory of foreigners like Bohr, Fermi, Einstein, and Bethe.

The same is true in the field of missiles. A quick check of the Huntsville, Ala. phone book indicates the startling proportion of Germans currently in our employ. The first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, was primarily the work of Werner von Braun. He and his colleagues were originally given something to work with, when the government confiscated 98 German freightcars from the Harz mountains, filled with V-2 parts. We really had no other choice; we didn't know how to build large rockets ourselves then.

As a result, over the years, Americans have grown complacent about the theoretical basis of their technological progress. By neglecting basic search, we are attempting a very advised shortcut. "In short, we have mortgaged the future of science in our eagerness to exploit its past," says Piel. He knows that technology is no "miracle."

HOW do we avoid these misconceptions about science, and arouse new public support for basic research? Piel sees this matter again as a question of communication -- this time, between scientists and laymen.

Piel first raises the serious matter of general scientific ignorance. People have learned to accept science as a source of endless improvement, material comfort, and abundance, yet most the exact workings of science are mysterious. "Ironically, science itself seems to have fallen heir to much of what remains of the frightened awe formerly accorded to the outer darkness."

But popular scientific education is "made difficult by the enormous mushrooming of knowledge in recent years (a problem for the scientist as well as the citizen). It is increasingly hard for a specialist to keep informed of advances in his field; in medicine, for example, the total body of known information in any given field is presently doubling every twenty years. But hard as the task may be, information must be spread and assimilated, by scientist and non-scientist alike.

Taxpayers are, of course, upholding the scientific establishment on faith. Piel notes that "it is not the amount of support but the terms on which it is given that counts." This means that the public must be able to evaluate the various projects their government supports, and the way the support is administered. Thus the gap in communications between scientist and citizen "challenges the underlying assumptions of the democratic process." The gap grows more serious as scientific work becomes more expensive, requiring larger, more complex machinery and materials.

Education is the only possible bridge to this gap. This is the essence of Piel's conclusion, as it was Snow's before him. But since Snow's Two Cultures, science in America has received tremendous popularization, on television and in magazines and newspapers. Piel finds most of this popular work distressing in its approach. "The principal appeal in the popularization of science is still the one-note siren song of utility."

He is perhaps too hard on some of the popular representations of science, though properly scornful of the standard routine which "dramatizes science through the biography of a hero scientist: at the denouement, he is discovered in a lonely laboratory crying "Eureka" at a murky test tube held up to a bare light bulb." But misrepresentation is not confined to scientists. Stylized representations of all professions, generally grossly inaccurate, flood our media. Our T.V. cowboys bear no more resemblance to real post-Civil War cowboys than Perry Mason and Nicholas Cain bear to real lawyers, or Peter Gunn to a real private detective. Piel's unkind, thinly disguised cut at Frank Papp's Bell Telephone science series completely ignores first the unusual accuracy and clear presentation of the programs, and second the fact that they were prepared primarily for young children.

In general, however, his plea that "preoccupation with information should give way to popularization of the objectives, the method, and the spirit of science" seems sound and well-advised.

It is inherent in the nature of a book like this that it poses more problems than it answers. For most of the questions Mr. Piel raises, there are no easy solutions, only imperfect compromises. But he is right to argue that unless we find better solutions for the problems of communication in the sciences as they affect citizens, scientists, and the government, then the democratic assumptions of an informed citizenry may soon be in grave danger.