Commentary Magazine

Politicizing Science

In an age in which intellectual fashions seem to shift more frequently than the seasons, it is remarkable for a mass-circulation magazine to flourish continually, with virtually no change in its format or style, for over thirty-five years. The monthly Scientific American has done so, and in a conspicuously successful manner.

Scientific American was founded in 1845, but in its present form it came into existence in 1948, after Gerard Piel, Dennis Flanagan, and Donald H. Miller, Jr. bought the magazine from the Munn family, which had owned it since very early on. For a long time the magazine had focused on the industrial applications of science and technology; its highly detailed articles suggested a readership of grease-stained engineers and horny-handed hobbyists. In a manifesto published shortly after their purchase, the new publishers put forth their credo for a totally new format, targeted at “the growing community of U.S. citizens with a responsible interest in the advance and condition of science.” The new Scientific American would provide professional scientists with technically respectable but not overly esoteric accounts of developments in fields apart from their own specialties, and it would offer interested laymen a window onto the advance of all the sciences in a rapidly developing society. The editorial content of the magazine, featuring articles written by acknowledged leaders of the scientific disciplines, accompanied by attractive graphics and carefully edited by a superior journalistic staff, would make it unique, neither a professional journal along the lines of Science or Nature (both of them too technical for a general audience) nor simplified to the extent that nothing would remain but broad generalities or sensationalized trivialities.

The formula hit upon by Piel and his partners, as original in its own way as the more popular new forms created earlier in the century, Henry Luce’s Time, the Wallaces’ Reader’s Digest, and Harold Ross’s New Yorker, soon proved highly successful, despite the deeply felt plaint of one Philip E. Damon of Ames, Iowa, who wrote, shortly after the transition: “Man, oh man. You have ruined the finest shop and hobby magazine in the world. Gone highbrow.” New readers, more attuned to the spirit of the age, were drawn by the prominence of the contributors, by the handsome layout, and most of all by the intellectual stimulation of the contents. Advertisers of all sorts were attracted by the demographic profile of this new, increasingly affluent, and highly educated audience.

The creators of the new publication, which grew steadily fatter, glossier, and more prosperous, themselves reaped rich rewards—financial, social, and cultural—from the prestige of their creation. Gerard Piel in particular became a pillar of the American and international intellectual establishment, holder of close to a score of honorary degrees, a trustee of Phillips Academy, of Radcliffe and Tougaloo Colleges, and of New York University, winner of the UNESCO Kalinga Prize and numerous other honors. Piel’s career as a recognized spokesman for the scientific estate is now reaching its apogee: upon stepping down as publisher of Scientific American this May, he is to take office as president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation’s largest organization of professional scientists.



Following its creators’ philosophy, each issue of Scientific American offers about eight main articles designed to pique the interest of a wide variety of readers. The range of topics is so broad, from the technology of pork production to the philosophy of quantum mechanics, and the treatment of each so serious, that it is difficult to see how any large fraction of the 650,000 domestic and 350,000 foreign-language subscribers could regularly read the magazine from cover to cover, unless they are equipped with minds, and reading appetites, like those of Philip Morrison, the MIT physics professor who has served for many years as the magazine’s book editor and who manages to discuss each month a diversity of weighty tomes on a bewildering variety of unrelated topics. The mix of articles is such that at least one or two in each issue should appeal to anyone with an interest in some particular area of scientific endeavor, whether philosophico-mathematical, physico-chemical, biological, or socioeconomic. Many of the articles are sufficiently authoritative to have given birth to a profitable spinoff activity of individual reprints and topical anthologies for high-school and college classroom use. As for the authors, 79, at latest count, have won Nobel Prizes—a selling point in the magazine’s circulation promotions.

Rounding out the contents each month are a number of regular departments, including Morrison’s book reviews, a column for home experimenters (probably the last relic of the old Scientific American spirit), and a news-and-comment feature called “Science for the Citizen” which summarizes and seeks to put in perspective recent advances in various areas of science and technology as well as significant developments in the political arena. For many years, a regular column of mathematical puzzles and reflections was contributed by Martin Gardner, but this has recently been replaced, first by a column written by Douglas Hofstadter, the mathematician and computer scientist whose best-selling book Gödel, Escher, Bach deals with deep mathematical and logical problems, and then more recently by a column discussing the recreational use of computers. This last feature is written by Brian Hayes, who is to replace Flanagan as editor at the same time that Gerard Piel’s place as publisher is filled by his son Jonathan.

Providing an otherwise unavailable survey of all the sciences is not, however, the sole raison d’être of Scientific American. As Piel in particular has made abundantly clear in thirty years of written and spoken pronouncements, the magazine also seeks to raise its readers’ consciousness, to make them realize that science is not merely an intellectual endeavor but a vital part of modern civilization in all its aspects. Indeed, Piel has gone so far as to state that “science is the ultimate source of value in the life of mankind.”

In the pages of Scientific American itself such overt ideological enthusiasm would be out of place, and Piel has in fact restricted the exposition of his ideas to those numerous occasions—public lectures, commencement addresses, and the like—which have offered him a personal forum. On the evidence of one published collection (The Acceleration of History, 1972), his ideas amount to those of a typical member of the liberal establishment, academic branch. This suggests that he is more likely to have projected his own predispositions and values onto science, however science is to be defined, than to have derived them from it.



In any event, philosophical considerations are not relevant to the bulk of technically focused articles that the magazine’s readers devour. Where the question of values does become relevant is in those articles dealing explicitly with political matters, and in particular with strategic issues.

Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the connection between scientific advance and national security has been inescapable, and scientifically-oriented publications have paid close attention to new weapons and to American strategic doctrine. The most extreme example is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which actually owes its genesis to the guilt felt by some who had participated in the wartime mobilization of the sciences and who came to believe they had not demonstrated sufficient concern for the moral and ethical issues involved. Even purely professional groups like the American Physical Society provide space in their less specialized journals for discussions of strategic problems.

It is thus entirely appropriate that Scientific American do likewise. But the way in which these issues have been discussed in its pages has changed quite markedly since the early postwar period.



In 1949, when the implications of nuclear weapons for the future of warfare were first being explored, one issue of Scientific American contained an article by P.M.S. Blackett, the Nobel Prize-winning British physicist, arguing that the nuclear monopoly then still enjoyed by the United States did not in fact confer very much in terms of a usable military advantage over the Soviet Union with its massive army; Blackett proposed that an attempt be made to negotiate an agreement trading off the U.S. nuclear advantage for the Soviets’ conventional manpower. In an accompanying reply, the U.S. physicist Louis Ridenour pointed out that Blackett was merely repeating the line then being put forward by the Russians themselves, which to Ridenour was false in its actual understanding of the strategic and tactical significance of nuclear weapons; following Blackett’s proposal, he wrote, would merely result in granting an advantage to the Soviets.

The technical details of this argument were promptly rendered moot by the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb. The subsequent decision by President Truman to authorize the development of the so-called “super,” or hydrogen, bomb was in turn the subject of a series of articles in Scientific American by different authors. Not one of them could have been described as enthusiastic about the prospective new weapon, whose city-busting capability would make it more serviceable to the Soviet Union against the highly urbanized United States than to the United States against the Soviet Union. Hans Bethe, in an early version of a case that is still put forward today, regarded the decision as a mistake but thought its consequences could be mitigated by adopting a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Ridenour, while not questioning the logic of the decision, joined in deploring the secrecy under which it had been taken, which he saw as inconsistent with the democratic process. Ralph Lapp explored possible defensive strategies against the bomb, such as population dispersal.

Aside from a 1958 article on the peaceful uses of nuclear explosions co-authored by the young Harold Brown, then a physicist on the staff of the Livermore weapons laboratory, references to nuclear weapons were scarce for the next decade or so, except in the book reviews of James R. Newman, a writer of grace on matters philosophical and mathematical, who grew vitriolic when confronted with opinions that contradicted his own fervent dismissal of any permissible role for nuclear arms.

Newman’s attitude was a portent of what was to come. For the early 1960’s began to see the end of all efforts to approach this subject in a spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry; from that point on, the conclusions of any Scientific American article dealing with the subject of weapons, strategic policy, or arms control seemed more theological than scientific in character. The doctrine of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, with its corollary that attempting to defend against nuclear attack is wrong in principle, became an unchallengeable dogma. New weapons systems proposed by administrations of every political stripe—Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, or Reagan—-were uniformly attacked on the grounds that they would be ineffective, destabilizing, self-defeating, or all three, with little concern being given to the consistency of the argument. As a 1964 article by Jerome Wiesner and Herbert York stated: “There can be no technical solution to the problem of national security . . . one of the potentially destabilizing elements is the possibility that one of the rival powers might develop a successful anti-missile defense . . . defense against thermonuclear attack is impossible.”



Articles appearing over the past twenty years have all seemed to adopt the line that advances in Soviet weaponry do not really matter, since they cannot possibly result in a convincing Soviet first-strike capability: any U.S. response to Soviet advances, however, is seen as dangerous and destabilizing, especially because it might lead the unsophisticated Russians to fear an American first strike. This curiously asymmetrical argument has been applied to many different situations.

Richard Garwin, for example, has proclaimed the need to restrain advances in U.S. capability against Soviet strategic-missile submarines, which he would allow free passage. Other writers in Scientific American regularly denounce new strategic approaches, especially if they include the development of counterforce weapons, as so much wasteful warmongering: “The improved counterforce capability proposed by the [Nixon] administration is . . . not only unnecessary and potentially costly but also likely . . . to increase the risk of nuclear war.” The neutron bomb is stigmatized as “a weapon of doubtful utility that could result in an all-out nuclear exchange.” The MX missile is damned as “an inappropriate response to a perceived vulnerability.” And so forth.

The authors of these and many other similar articles can legitimately claim to be experts on the subjects they address. They have often held responsible positions, either in government service or as highly placed consultants, and their conclusions are shared by large and influential elements of the U.S. political, academic, and media elites. The process by which they reach those conclusions, however, has little claim to be considered scientific, or even logical in the normal sense of the word.



A good example of the curious thinking underlying the uniform hostility displayed in Scientific American to any proposed strengthening of the U.S. military position can be found in a 1969 article by the MIT political scientist George Rathjens. According to Rathjens, the “futility of searching for technological solutions to political problems” is proved by the fact that “a steady decrease in our national security has for over twenty years accompanied the steady increase in our military power.” Most Scientific American writers would no doubt hold this to be even more valid today than when it was first published some fifteen years ago. Yet if the causal relationship implied by the latter assertion were truly a scientific hypothesis rather than a desperate leap of faith (or, in this case, delusion), the author should be required to defend it against the alternative hypothesis: namely, that regardless of the absolute level of U.S. military power, it is the far steadier increase in Soviet military power, combined with the clear Soviet willingness to exercise that power ruthlessly, which has caused the perceived decline in our national security. This latter hypothesis, which is certainly less counter-intuitive than the notion of an inverse relation between military strength and physical safety, also agrees with the bitterly won conclusion reached by every U.S. administration, not excluding that of Jimmy Carter, which has actually had to bear the responsibility of maintaining national security rather than merely theorizing about it.



Although Scientific American does little to demonstrate how scientific thought can properly be applied to the most important issue of the day, its position on this issue claims for itself the prestige and authority of science. Thus has this supposed champion and exemplar of detached observation and sober theorizing contributed to a process of politicization that will ultimately be as corrupting to science as the same process has already proved to other intellectual disciplines in our time.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.