The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)
Chapter 24. Science and Witchcraft*
Ubi dubium ibi libertas: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.
[* Written with Ann Druyan. The following two chapters include more political content than elsewhere in this book. I do not wish to suggest that advocacy of science and scepticism necessarily leads to all the political or social conclusions I draw. Although sceptical thinking is invaluable in politics, politics is not a science.]
The 1939 New York World’s Fair - that so transfixed me as a small visitor from darkest Brooklyn - was about The World of Tomorrow’. Merely by adopting such a motif, it promised that there would be a world of tomorrow, and the most casual glance affirmed that it would be better than the world of 1939. Although the nuance wholly passed me by, many people longed for such a reassurance on the eve of the most brutal and calamitous war in human history. I knew at least that I would be growing up in the future. The sleek and clean ‘tomorrow’ portrayed by the Fair was appealing and hopeful. And something called science was plainly the means by which that future would be realized.
But if things had gone a little differently, the Fair could have given me enormously more. A fierce struggle had gone on behind the scenes. The vision that prevailed was that of the Fair’s President and chief spokesman, Grover Whalen - a former corporate executive, New York City police chief in a time of unprecedented police brutality, and public relations innovator. It was he who had envisioned the exhibit buildings as chiefly commercial, industrial, oriented to consumer products, and he who had convinced Stalin and Mussolini to build lavish national pavilions. (He later complained about how often he had been obliged to give the fascist salute.) The level of the exhibits, as one designer described it, was pitched to the mentality of a twelve-year-old.
However, as recounted by the historian Peter Kuznick of American University, a group of prominent scientists, including Harold Urey and Albert Einstein, advocated presenting science for its own sake, not just as the route to gadgets for sale; concentrating on the way of thinking and not just the products of science. They were convinced that broad popular understanding of science was the antidote to superstition and bigotry; that, as science popularizer Watson Davis put it, ‘the scientific way is the democratic way’. One scientist even suggested that widespread public appreciation of the methods of science might work ‘a final conquest of stupidity’ - a worthy, but probably unrealizable, goal.
As events transpired, almost no real science was tacked on to the Fair’s exhibits, despite the scientists’ protests and their appeals to high principles. And yet, some of the little that was added trickled down to me and helped to transform my childhood. The corporate and consumer focus remained central, though, and essentially nothing appeared about science as a way of thinking, much less as a bulwark of a free society.
Exactly half a century later, in the closing years of the Soviet Union, Ann Druyan and I found ourselves at a dinner in Peredelkino, a village outside Moscow where Communist Party officials, retired generals and a few favoured intellectuals had their summer homes. The air was electric with the prospect of new freedoms - especially the right to speak your mind even if the government doesn’t like what you’re saying. The fabled revolution of rising expectations was in full flower. But, despite glasnost, there were widespread doubts. Would those in power really allow their own critics to be heard? Would freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, of religion, really be permitted? Would people inexperienced with freedom be able to bear its burdens?
Some of the Soviet citizens present at the dinner had fought for decades and against long odds for the freedoms that most Americans take for granted; indeed, they had been inspired by the American experiment, a real-world demonstration that nations, even multicultural and multiethnic nations, could survive and prosper with these freedoms reasonably intact. They went so far as to raise the possibility that prosperity was due to freedom -that, in an age of high technology and swift change, the two rise or fall together, that the openness of science and democracy, their willingness to be judged by experiment, were closely allied ways of thinking.
There were many toasts, as there always are at dinners in that part of the world. The most memorable was given by a world-famous Soviet novelist. He stood up, raised his glass, looked us in the eye, and said, To the Americans. They have a little freedom.’ He paused a beat, and then added: ‘And they know how to keep it.’
The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before politicians found a way to subvert it, by cashing in on fear and patriotic hysteria. In 1798, the ruling Federalist Party knew that the button to push was ethnic and cultural prejudice. Exploiting tensions between France and the US, and a widespread fear that French and Irish immigrants were somehow intrinsically unfit to be Americans, the Federalists passed a set of laws that have come to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
One law upped the residency requirement for citizenship from five to fourteen years. (Citizens of French and Irish origin usually voted for the opposition, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.) The Alien Act gave President John Adams the power to deport any foreigner who aroused his suspicions. Making the President nervous, said a member of Congress, ‘is the new crime’. Jefferson believed the Alien Act had been framed particularly to expel C.F. Volney,* the French historian and philosopher; Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, patriarch of the famous chemical family; and the British scientist Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen and an intellectual antecedent of James Clerk Maxwell. In Jefferson’s view, these were just the sort of people America needed.
[* A typical passage from Volney’s 1791 book Ruins:
You dispute, you quarrel, you fight for that which is uncertain, that of which you doubt. O men! Is this not folly?... We must trace a line of distinction between those [subjects] that are capable of verification, and those that are not, and separate by an inviolable barrier the world of fantastical beings from the world of realities; that is to say, all civil effect must be taken away from theological and religious opinions.]
The Sedition Act made it unlawful to publish ‘false or malicious’ criticism of the government or to inspire opposition to any of its acts. Some two dozen arrests were made, ten people were convicted, and many more were censored or intimidated into silence. The act attempted, Jefferson said, ‘to crush all political opposition by making criticism of Federalist officials or policies a crime’.
As soon as Jefferson was elected, indeed in the first week of his Presidency in 1801, he began pardoning every victim of the Sedition Act because, he said, it was as contrary to the spirit of American freedoms as if Congress had ordered us all to fall down and worship a golden calf. By 1802, none of the Alien and Sedition Acts remained on the books.
From across two centuries, it’s hard to recapture the frenzied mood that made the French and the ‘wild Irish’ seem so grave a threat that we were willing to surrender our most precious freedoms. Giving credit for French and Irish cultural triumphs, advocating equal rights for them, was in effect decried in conservative circles as sentimental - unrealistic political correctness. But that’s how it always works. It always seems an aberration later. But by then we’re in the grip of the next hysteria.
Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office. It could be ethnic differences, as it was then, perhaps different amounts of melanin in the skin; different philosophies or religions; or maybe it’s drug use, violent crime, economic crisis, school prayer, or ‘desecrating’ (literally, making unholy) the flag.
Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights. Yes, in 1942, Japanese-Americans were protected by the Bill of Rights, but we locked them up anyway -after all, there was a war on. Yes, there are Constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure, but we have a war on drugs and violent crime is racing out of control. Yes, there’s freedom of speech, but we don’t want foreign authors here, spouting alien ideologies, do we? The pretexts change from year to year, but the result remains the same: concentrating more power in fewer hands and suppressing diversity of opinion - even though experience plainly shows the danger of such a course of action.
If we do not know what we’re capable of, we cannot appreciate measures taken to protect us from ourselves. I discussed the European witch mania in the alien abduction context; I hope the reader will forgive me for returning to it in its political context. It is an aperture to human self-knowledge. If we focus on what was considered acceptable evidence and a fair trial by the religious and secular authorities in the fifteenth- to seventeenth-century witch hunts, many of the novel and peculiar features of the eighteenth-century US Constitution and Bill of Rights become clear: including trial by jury, prohibitions against self-incrimination and against cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of speech and the press, due process, the balance of powers and the separation of Church and State.
Friedrich von Spec (pronounced ‘Shpay’) was a Jesuit priest who had the misfortune to hear the confessions of those accused of witchcraft in the German city of Wurzburg (see Chapter 7). In 1631, he published Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), which exposed the essence of this Church/State terrorism against the innocent. Before he was punished he died of the plague - as a parish priest serving the afflicted. Here is an excerpt from his whistle-blowing book:
1. Incredibly among us Germans, and especially (I am ashamed to say) among Catholics, are popular superstitions, envy, calumnies, backbiting, insinuations, and the like, which, being neither punished nor refuted, stir up suspicion of witchcraft. No longer God or nature, but witches are responsible for everything.
2. Hence everybody sets up a clamour that the magistrates investigate the witches - whom only popular gossip has made so numerous.
3. Princes, therefore, bid their judges and counsellors bring proceedings against the witches.
4. The judges hardly know where to start, since they have no evidence [indicia] or proof.
5. Meanwhile, the people call this delay suspicious; and the princes are persuaded by some informer or another to this effect.
6. In Germany, to offend these princes is a serious offence; even clergymen approve whatever pleases them, not caring by whom these princes (however well-intentioned) have been instigated.
7. At last, therefore, the judges yield to their wishes and contrive to begin the trials.
8. Other judges who still delay, afraid to get involved in this ticklish matter, are sent a special investigator. In this field of investigation, whatever inexperience or arrogance he brings to the job is held zeal for justice. His zeal for justice is also whetted by hopes of profit, especially with a poor and greedy agent with a large family, when he receives as stipend so many dollars per head for each witch burned, besides the incidental fees and perquisites which investigating agents are allowed to extort at will from those they summon.
9. If a madman’s ravings or some malicious and idle rumour (for no proof of the scandal is ever needed) points to some helpless old woman, she is the first to suffer.
10. Yet to avoid the appearance that she is indicted solely on the basis of rumour, without other proofs, a certain presumption of guilt is obtained by posing the following
dilemma: either she has led an evil and improper life, or she has led a good and proper one. If an evil one, then she should be guilty. On the other hand, if she has led a good life, this is just as damning; for witches dissemble and try to appear especially virtuous.
11. Therefore the old woman is put in prison. A new proof is found through a second dilemma: she is afraid or not afraid. If she is (hearing of the horrible tortures used against witches), this is sure proof; for her conscience accuses her. If she does not show fear (trusting in her innocence), this too is a proof; for witches characteristically pretend innocence and wear a bold front.
12. Lest these should be the only proofs, the investigator has his snoopers, often depraved and infamous, ferret out all her past life. This, of course, cannot be done without turning up some saying or doing of hers which men so disposed can easily twist or distort into evidence of witchcraft.
13. Any who have borne her ill now have ample opportunity to bring against her whatever accusations they please; and everyone says that the evidence is strong against her.
14. And so she is hurried to the torture, unless, as often happens, she was tortured on the very day of her arrest.
15. In these trials nobody is allowed a lawyer or any means of fair defence, for witchcraft is reckoned an exceptional crime [of such enormity that all rules of legal procedure may be suspended], and whoever ventures to defend the prisoner falls himself under suspicion of witchcraft - as well as those who dare to utter a protest in these cases and to urge the judges to exercise prudence, for they are forthwith labelled supporters of witchcraft. Thus everybody keeps quiet for fear.
16. So that it may seem that the woman has an opportunity to defend herself, she is brought into court and the indications of her guilt are read and examined - if it can be called an examination.
17. Even though she denies these charges and satisfactorily answers every accusation, no attention is paid and her replies are not even recorded; all the indictments retain their force and validity, however perfect her answers to them. She is ordered back into prison, there to consider more carefully whether she will persist in obstinacy - for, since she has already denied her guilt, she is obstinate.
18. Next day she is brought out again, and hears a decree of torture - just as if she had never refuted the charges.
19. Before torture, however, she is searched for amulets: her entire body is shaved, and even those privy parts indicating the female sex are wantonly examined.
20. What is so shocking about this? Priests are treated the same way.
21. When the woman has been shaved and searched, she is tortured to make her confess the truth - that is, to declare what they want, for naturally anything else will not and cannot be the truth.
22. They start with the first degree, i.e., the less severe torture. Although exceedingly severe, it is light compared to those tortures which follow. Wherefore if she confesses, they say the woman has confessed without torture!
23. Now, what prince can doubt her guilt when he is told she has confessed voluntarily, without torture?
24. She is therefore put to death without scruple. But she would have been executed even if she had not confessed; for when once the torture has begun, the die is already cast; she cannot escape, she has perforce to die.
25. The result is the same whether she confesses or not. If she confesses, her guilt is clear: she is executed. All recantation is in vain. If she does not confess, the torture is repeated - twice, thrice, four times. In exceptional crimes, the torture is not limited in duration, severity, or frequency.
26. If, during the torture, the old woman contorts her features with pain, they say she is laughing; if she loses consciousness, she is sleeping or has bewitched herself into taciturnity. And if she is taciturn, she deserves to be burned alive, as lately has been done to some who, though several times tortured, would not say what the investigators wanted.
27. And even confessors and clergymen agree that she died obstinate and impenitent; that she would not be converted or desert her incubus, but kept faith with him.
28. If, however, she dies under so much torture, they say the devil broke her neck.
29. Wherefore the corpse is buried underneath the gallows.
30. On the other hand, if she does not die under torture, and if some exceptionally scrupulous judge hesitates to torture her further without fresh proofs or to burn her without her confession, she is kept in prison and more harshly chained, there to rot until she yields, even if it take a whole year.
31. She can never clear herself. The investigating committee would feel disgraced if it acquitted a woman; once arrested and in chains, she has to be guilty, by fair means or foul.
32. Meanwhile, ignorant and headstrong priests harass the wretched creature so that, whether truly or not, she will confess herself guilty; unless she does so, they say, she cannot be saved or partake of the sacraments.
33. More understanding or learned priests cannot visit her in prison lest they counsel her or inform the princes what goes on. Nothing is more dreaded than that something be brought to light to prove the innocence of the accused. Persons who try to do so are labelled troublemakers.
34. While she is kept in prison and tortured, the judges invent clever devices to build up new proofs of guilt to convict her to her face, so that, when reviewing the trial, some university faculty can confirm her burning alive.
35. Some judges, to appear ultrascrupulous, have the woman exorcized, transferred elsewhere, and tortured all over again, to break her taciturnity; if she maintains silence, then at last they can burn her. Now, in Heaven’s name, I would like to know, since she who confesses and she who does not both perish alike, how can anybody, no matter how innocent, escape? O unhappy woman, why have you rashly hoped? Why did you not, on first entering prison, admit whatever they wanted? Why, foolish and crazy woman, did you wish to die so many times when you might have died but once? Follow my counsel, and, before undergoing all these pains, say you are guilty and die. You will not escape, for this were a catastrophic disgrace to the zeal of Germany.
36. When, under stress of pain, the witch has confessed, her plight is indescribable. Not only cannot she escape herself, but she is also compelled to accuse others whom she does not know, whose names are frequently put into her mouth by the investigators or suggested by the executioner, or of whom she has heard as suspected or accused. These in turn are forced to accuse others, and these still others, so it goes on: who can help seeing that it must go on and on?
37. The judges must either suspend these trials (and so impute their validity) or else burn their own folk, themselves, and everybody else; for all sooner or later are falsely accused and, if tortured, all are proved guilty.
38. Thus eventually those who at first clamoured most loudly to feed the flames are themselves involved, for they rashly failed to see that their turn too would come. Thus Heaven justly punishes those who with their pestilent tongues created so many witches and sent so many innocent to the stake...
Von Spec is not explicit about the sickening methods of torture employed. Here is an excerpt from an invaluable compilation, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, by Rossell Hope Robbins (1959):
One might glance at some of the special tortures at Bamberg, for example, such as the forcible feeding of the accused on herrings cooked in salt, followed by denial of water - a sophisticated method which went side by side with immersion of the accused in baths of scalding water to which lime had been added. Other ways with witches included the wooden horse, various kinds of racks, the heated iron chair, leg vises [Spanish boots], and large boots of leather or metal into which (with the feet in them, of course) was poured boiling water or molten lead. In the water torture, the question de I’eau, water was poured down the throat of the accused, along with a soft cloth to cause choking. The cloth was pulled out quickly so that the entrails would be torn. The thumbscrews [gresillons] were a vise designed to compress the thumbs or the big toes to the root of the nails, so that the crushing of the digit would cause excruciating pain.
In addition, and more routinely applied, were the strappado and squassation and still more ghastly tortures that I will avoid describing. After torture, and with the instruments of torture in plain view, the victim was asked to sign a statement. This was then described as a ‘free confession’, voluntarily admitted to.
At great personal risk, von Spec protested the witch mania. So did a few others, mainly Catholic and Protestant clergy who had witnessed these crimes at first hand - including Gianfrancesco Ponzinibio in Italy, Cornelius Loos in Germany and Reginald Scot in Britain in the sixteenth century; as well as Johann Mayfurth (‘Listen, you money-hungry judges and bloodthirsty prosecutors, the apparitions of the Devil are all lies’) in Germany and Alonzo Salazar de Frias in Spain in the seventeenth century. Along with von Spec and the Quakers generally, they are heroes of our species. Why are they not better known?
In A Candle in the Dark (1656), Thomas Ady addressed a key question:
Some again will object and say, If Witches cannot kill, and do many strange things by Witchcraft, why have many confessed that they have done such Murthers, and other strange matters, whereof they have been accused?
To this I answer, If Adam and Eve in their innocency were so easily overcome, and tempted to sin, how much more may poor Creatures now after the Fall, by persuasions, promises, and threatenings, by keeping from sleep, and continual torture, be brought to confess that which is false and impossible, and contrary to the faith of a Christian to believe?
It was not until the eighteenth century that the possibility of hallucination as a component in the persecution of witches was seriously entertained; Bishop Francis Hutchinson, in his Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718), wrote
Many a man hath verily believed he hath seen a spirit externally before him, when it hath been only an internal image dancing in his own brain.
Because of the courage of these opponents of the witch mania, its extension to the privileged classes, the danger it posed to the growing institution of capitalism, and especially the spread of the ideas of the European Enlightenment, witch burnings eventually disappeared. The last execution for witchcraft in Holland, cradle of the Enlightenment, was in 1610; in England, 1684; America, 1692; France, 1745; Germany, 1775; and Poland, 1793. In Italy, the Inquisition was condemning people to death until the end of the eighteenth century, and inquisitorial torture was not abolished in the Catholic Church until 1816. The last bastion of support for the reality of witchcraft and the necessity of punishment has been the Christian churches.
The witch mania is shameful. How could we do it? How could we be so ignorant about ourselves and our weaknesses? How could it have happened in the most ‘advanced’, the most ‘civilized’ nations then on Earth? Why was it resolutely supported by conservatives, monarchists and religious fundamentalists? Why opposed by liberals, Quakers and followers of the Enlightenment? If we’re absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of very different faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey - then the witch mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man. Note Friedrich von Spec’s very first point, and the implication that improved public understanding of superstition and scepticism might have helped to short-circuit the whole train of causality. If we fail to understand how it worked in the last round, we will not recognize it as it emerges in the next.
‘It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of public opinion,’ said Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the ‘Big Brother’ state employs an army of bureaucrats whose only job is to alter the records of the past so they conform to the interests of those currently in power. 1984 was not just an engaging political fantasy; it was based on the Stalinist Soviet Union, where the re-writing of history was institutionalized. Soon after Stalin took power, pictures of his rival Leon Trotsky - a monumental figure in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions - began to disappear. Heroic and wholly anhistoric paintings of Stalin and Lenin together directing the Bolshevik Revolution took their place, with Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army, nowhere in evidence. These images became icons of the state. You could see them in every office building, on outdoor advertising signs sometimes ten storeys high, in museums, on postage stamps.
New generations grew up believing that was their history. Older generations began to feel that they remembered something of the sort, a kind of political false-memory syndrome. Those who made the accommodation between their real memories and what the leadership wished them to believe exercised what Orwell described as ‘doublethink’. Those who did not, those old Bolsheviks who could recall the peripheral role of Stalin in the Revolution and the central role of Trotsky, were denounced as traitors or unreconstructed bourgeoisie or ‘Trotskyites’ or ‘Trotsky-fascists’, and were imprisoned, tortured, made to confess their treason in public, and then executed. It is possible - given absolute control over the media and the police - to rewrite the memories of hundreds of millions of people, if you have a generation to accomplish it in. Almost always, this is done to improve the hold that the powerful have on power, or to serve the narcissism or megalomania or paranoia of national leaders. It throws a monkey-wrench into the error-correcting machinery. It works to erase public memory of profound political mistakes, and thus to guarantee their eventual repetition.
In our time, with total fabrication of realistic stills, motion pictures, and videotapes technologically within reach, with television in every home, and with critical thinking in decline, restructuring societal memories even without much attention from the secret police seems possible. What I’m imagining here is not that each of us has a budget of memories implanted in special therapeutic sessions by state-appointed psychiatrists, but rather that small numbers of people will have so much control over new stories, history books, and deeply affecting images as to work major changes in collective attitudes.
We saw a pale echo of what is now possible in 1990-91, when Saddam Hussein, the autocrat of Iraq, made a sudden transition in the American consciousness from an obscure near-ally - granted commodities, high technology, weaponry, and even satellite intelligence data - to a slavering monster menacing the world. I am not myself an admirer of Mr Hussein, but it was striking how quickly he could be brought from someone almost no American had heard of into the incarnation of evil. These days the apparatus for generating indignation is busy elsewhere. How confident are we that the power to drive and determine public opinion will always reside in responsible hands?
Another contemporary example is the ‘war’ on drugs where the government and munificently funded civic groups systematically distort and even invent scientific evidence of adverse effects (especially of marijuana), and in which no public official is permitted even to raise the topic for open discussion.
But it’s hard to keep potent historical truths bottled up forever. New data repositories are uncovered. New, less ideological, generations of historians grow up. In the late 1980s and before, Ann Druyan and I would routinely smuggle copies of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution into the USSR, so our colleagues could know a little about their own political beginnings. By the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Trotsky (Stalin’s assassin had cracked Trotsky’s head open with a hammer), Izvestia could extol Trotsky as ‘a great and irreproachable* revolutionary’, and a German Communist publication went so far as to describe him as
fight[ing] for all of us who love human civilization, for whom this civilization is our nationality. His murderer... tried, in killing him, to kill this civilization... [This] was a man who had in his head the most valuable and best-organized brain that was ever crushed by a hammer.
Trends working at least marginally towards the implantation of a very narrow range of attitudes, memories and opinions include control of major television networks and newspapers by a small number of similarly motivated powerful corporations and individuals, the disappearance of competitive daily newspapers in many cities, the replacement of substantive debate by sleaze in political campaigns, and episodic erosion of the principle of the separation of powers. It is estimated (by the American media expert Ben Bagditrian) that fewer than two dozen corporations control more than half of the global business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books and movies! The proliferation of cable television channels, cheap long-distance telephone calls, fax machines, computer bulletin boards and networks, inexpensive computer self-publishing and surviving instances of the traditional liberal arts university curriculum are trends that might work in the opposite direction.
It’s hard to tell how it’s going to turn out.
The business of scepticism is to be dangerous. Scepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of sceptical thought, they will probably not restrict their scepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials and 35,000-year-old channellees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious .nsdtutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?
Ethnocentrism, xenophobia and nationalism are these days rife in many parts of the world. Government repression of unpopular views is still widespread. False or misleading memories are inculcated. For the defenders of such attitudes, science is disturbing. It claims access to truths that are largely independent of ethnic or cultural biases. By its very nature, science transcends national boundaries. Put scientists working in the same field of study together in a room and even if they share no common spoken language, they will find a way to communicate. Science itself is a transnational language. Scientists are naturally cosmopolitan in attitude and are more likely to see through efforts to divide the human family into many small and warring factions. ‘There is no national science,’ said the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, ‘just as there is no national multiplication table.’ (Likewise, for many, there is no such thing as a national religion, although the religion of nationalism has millions of adherents.)
In disproportionate numbers, scientists are found in the ranks of social critics (or, less charitably, ‘dissidents’), challenging the policies and myths of their own nations. The heroic names of the physicists Andrei Sakharov’ in the former USSR, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard in the United States, and Fang Li-zhu in China spring readily enough to mind, the first and last risking their lives. Especially in the aftermath of the invention of nuclear weapons, scientists have been portrayed as ethical cretins. This is an injustice, considering all those who, sometimes at considerable personal peril, have spoken out against their own countries’ misapplications of science and technology.
[* As a much-decorated ‘Hero’ of the Soviet Union, and privy to its nuclear secrets, Sakharov in the Cold War year 1968 boldly wrote - in a book published in the West and widely distributed in samizdal in the USSR - ‘Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of peoples by the mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demogogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorships.’ He was thinking of both East and West. I would add that free thought is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for democracy.]
For example, the chemist Linus Pauling (1901-94) was, more than any other person, responsible for the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which halted above-ground explosions of nuclear weapons by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. He mounted a blistering campaign of moral outrage and scientific data, made more credible by the fact that he was a Nobel laureate. In the American press, he was generally vilified for his troubles, and in the 1950s the State Department cancelled his passport because he had been insufficiently anti-communist. His Nobel Prize was awarded for the application of quantum mechanical insights - resonances, and what is called hybridization of orbitals - to explain the nature of the chemical bond that joins atoms together into molecules. These ideas are now the bread and butter of modern chemistry. But in the Soviet Union, Pauling’s work on structural chemistry was denounced as incompatible with dialectical materialism and declared off-limits to Soviet chemists.
Undaunted by this criticism East and West - indeed, not even slowed down - he went on to do monumental work on how anaesthetics work, identified the cause of sickle cell anaemia (a single nucleotide substitution in DNA), and showed how the evolutionary history of life might be read by comparing the DNAs of various organisms. He was hot on the trail of the structure of DNA; Watson and Crick were consciously rushing to get there before Pauling. The verdict on his assessment of Vitamin C is apparently still out. ‘That man is a real genius’ was Albert Einstein’s assessment.
In all this time he continued to work for peace and amity. When Ann and I once asked Pauling about the roots of his dedication to social issues, he gave a memorable reply: ‘I did it to be worthy of the respect of my wife,’ Helen Ava Pauling. He won a second Nobel Prize, this one in peace, for his work on the nuclear test ban, becoming the only person in history to win two unshared Nobel Prizes.
There were some who saw Pauling as a troublemaker. Those unhappy about social change may be tempted to view science itself with suspicion. Technology is safe, they tend to think, readily guided and controlled by industry and government. But pure science, science for its own sake, science as curiosity, science that might lead anywhere and challenge anything, that’s another story. Certain areas of pure science are the unique pathway to future technologies - true enough - but the attitudes of science, if applied broadly, can be perceived as dangerous. Through salaries, social pressures, and the distribution of prestige and awards, societies try to herd scientists into some reasonably safe middle ground - between too little long-term technological progress and too much short-term social criticism.
Unlike Pauling, many scientists consider their job to be science, narrowly defined, and believe that engaging in politics or social criticism is not just a distraction from but antithetical to the scientific life. As mentioned earlier, during the Manhattan Project, the successful World War Two US effort to build nuclear weapons before the Nazis did, certain participating scientists began to have reservations, the more so when it became clear how immensely powerful these weapons were. Some, such as Leo Szilard, James Franck, Harold Urey and Robert R. Wilson, tried to call the attention of political leaders and the public (especially after the Nazis were defeated) to the dangers of the forthcoming arms race, which they foresaw very well, with the Soviet Union. Others argued that policy matters were outside their jurisdiction. ‘I was put on Earth to make certain discoveries,’ said Enrico Fermi, ‘and what the political leaders do with them is not my business.’ But even so, Fermi was so appalled by the dangers of the thermonuclear weapon Edward Teller was advocating that he co-authored a famous document urging the United States not to build it, calling it ‘evil’.
Jeremy Stone, the president of the Federation of American Scientists, has described Teller - whose efforts to justify thermonuclear weapons I described in a previous chapter - in these words:
Edward Teller... insisted, at first for personal intellectual reasons and later for geopolitical reasons, that a hydrogen bomb be built. Using tactics of exaggeration and even smear, he successfully manipulated the policy-making process for five decades, denouncing all manner of arms control measures and promoting arms-race-escalating programs of many kinds.
The Soviet Union, hearing of his H-bomb project, built its own H-bomb. As a direct consequence of the unusual personality of this particular individual and of the power of the H-bomb, the world may have risked a level of annihilation that might not otherwise have transpired, or might have come later and under better political controls.
If so, no scientist has ever had more influence on the risks that humanity has run than Edward Teller, and Teller’s general behavior throughout the arms race was reprehensible...
Edward Teller’s fixation on the H-bomb may have led him to do more to imperil life on this planet than any other individual in our species...
Compared to Teller, the leaders of Western atomic science were frequently babes in the political woods - their leadership having been determined by their professional skills rather than by, in this case, their political skills.
My purpose here is not to castigate a scientist for succumbing to very human passions, but to reiterate that new imperative: the unprecedented powers that science now makes available must be accompanied by unprecedented levels of ethical focus and concern by the scientific community, as well as the most broadly based public education into the importance of science and democracy.