Citizens and Scientists or Scientists -- Citizen-Scientists

Tonight I want to take a little time to stand back and see what Science for Peace as a movement has achieved. What was envisioned, when almost 30 years ago Kenneth Boulding came to this university to talk about the subject “Is peace researchable?”. This idea came out of a long tradition of those who felt strongly not only that science had given great benefit to humanity — but also that the scientists themselves had a particular role to play vis a vis the needs the world faced. I think it is well worth while to look at what, in the intervening 30 years, we have learned both about science and about peace.

For peace? or against war?

In the initial stage people thought very clearly — “here is science giving enormous intellectual input into the practice and art of war; where is the corresponding input into the activities and the practice and the tools of peace?” People thought that surely one can redirect the intellectual activity of good people so that at the end of their struggle with their particular scientific discipline the result would not be more war but more peace. We should at this point be very clear that there have been enormous successes — that in fact science has been a very good instrument against war — very much more so, as one looks back, than an instrument for peace. I will elaborate on that distinction later. We should not underestimate the effect that the collaboration between scientists and citizens has had, if we realize there was, (in spite of the arms race) no war between the superpowers, no war in Europe.

Isn’t that the deterrence factor (and we hear that often)? I would say no — to the contrary, it is the deterrence of the collaboration between scientists and citizens. If anything scared the world enough not to use nuclear weapons, it was not the military, being good and silent about weapons. It was the scientists, from whom the citizens got the information that was good enough, solid enough, and irrefutable enough to make clear what nuclear war meant. Nuclear winter was not a pronouncement of the Pentagon or of any other military authority. Nuclear winter was pried out by scientists and citizens, in answer to the question of what would really happen after even very limited nuclear attack. And so you can take it for very many of these weapons — the critique of the Pershings, the Cruise missiles — the critique of the nuclear submarines. All these have come out of the collaboration between scientists and citizens. It has made a difference. None of us can ever know what would have happened without it. Even the limited nuclear test ban treaty is a very good indication that some things got done.

Nevertheless one has to say that while science combined with citizenship had an effectiveness against the tools of war, it has been much less successful in giving us the tools for peace. The tools for peace — the turning around of research to the problems of peace — does not have the same record as the use of scientific knowledge against existing weapons. We again don’t know what was prevented — but an awful lot happened. Star Wars preparations did happen — no scientist could prevent the initial concept and that enormous misuse of human ingenuity, leading to the development of a weapons system against which our colleagues then spoke.

Science vs. citizenship

I think there are a few things, that may not have been as clear 30 years ago as they are now, that relate both to the nature of science and to the nature of citizenship. One may see more clearly today than one did then, that science as an activity and as an enterprise is intensely competitive; it is essentially a private enterprise, in the sense of private scientists and groups working in strong seclusion and strong competition. And, in a technological society, science is a tool, a general practice, not for the common good, but for the private glory. (One can take the word private sectorally or otherwise.) On the other hand, citizenship is a collective activity. You cannot be a citizen alone. You can be a scientist alone. You can be a scientist in a small secluded group. Citizenship, on the other hand, is something that one can only practice with others, and working with those others will not be an exercise in unison. The very nature of citizenship demands that we develop the skills, the techniques and the compassion to deal with differences. And so there is essentially a fundamental difference between what science asks the scientist to do, and what citizenship requires.

War, of course, is the most competitive of all activities. It’s the one where the race is run to the end, and where nothing, in the minds of the military, stands in the way of winning. Peace on the other hand, is a cooperative activity. And I think one has to remember, again and again, the indivisibility of peace. There must be peace for all — you can’t have peace alone. And there’s peace for those one likes and loves; and there’s peace for all those ‘jerks’ we can do without. And there is no other way. This is why the work for peace is so difficult. Because,

peace is genuinely a collective achievement. It is a common good. It rains peace, like the rain, on the just and on the unjust, on the deserving who spend 30 years “wasting their time on it” during which they could have learned Chinese and grown orchids; and on those who spent 30 years going to movies and looking after their investments. And if there’s peace, there will be peace for all.

And so, there are essentially two very different worlds in which the scientist lives. And I think we should not be surprised that science for peace, when there has been science for peace, has come, not from the competitive establishments, but from the citizens’ groups that started out wanting to be useful to the collectivity. We have had the good research of Project Ploughshares, of Voice of Women, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and of many other groups among our medical colleagues. This was research in which the researcher was, in the first place, a citizen who happened to have that special toolbox that made her or him a scientist, and for that reason was useful to the collectivity. But it was neither the only toolbox, nor was it intended or believed to be the sole solution to the problem. It was a contribution. That contribution had to be done outside the competitive establishment, because, for a collective solution, one very rarely gets a promotion, tenure or a grant. We see more clearly than was seen 30 years ago, an essential incompatibility between the way in which science is practiced and the requirements of peace.

Peace and the war against nature

Nevertheless, what the world 30 years later presents to us is more fights among nations and stronger tools of power. We see among the victims of the preparation for war, nature herself — the environment — all that may rightly be considered the “commons”. We are not only in great need of the tools for peace, but we are in even greater need of the tools for ecological peace. These science has not given us. Science has given us some of the “anti-war” tools — the critique of what is not to be done with the environment, but not the tools for what ought to be done. This, I think, is the challenge that is very much ahead of us.

This challenge requires another look at whether we consider knowledge a common good. Do we see those who contribute to knowledge, by a variety of ways in which science is one, as the citizens who put their knowledge into the pot? Or, do we consider knowledge a commodity that is bought and sold and traded? We are at a very crucial point in the technological and intellectual history of our time. Because in a technological age, most things are considered a commodity: people — nature — rivers. Everything is looked upon, including knowledge, as if it can be bought and sold. And that puts the quest for the common good into an incredibly difficult position.

I feel so strongly about this because we are faced with two strategies. The strategy that science promotes (and much of the enterprise that our national governments across the globe promote) is a strategy for maximizing gain. But what is needed by a world that wants peace, as well as justice and ecological survival, is a strategy of minimizing disaster. And there comes a point where these two strategies become incompatible. The road forks, and one cannot at the same time maximize gain and minimize disaster.

In some of my more dark gloomy moments I think of putting out a sort of tract of “physics for politicians” that would deal with very simple things such as the 2nd law and the impossibility of the perpetual motion machine — that one cannot create something from nothing. And then I think, well — why go to physics? There is something that is much simpler in women’s experience. All mothers, all teachers know that the best way to equilibrium among people is to say “One cuts, and the other chooses.” And if you have a cake in front of you, and a birthday party for 4-year-olds, and you say “One cuts, and the other chooses” you will find justice comes quite naturally. We have no civic or international equivalent of this. We do not say “We build the park, and then you choose to enjoy it.” There is no such activity we can do in this competitive world, as humble as it might be. I think this is very crucial. The world at one point was small enough, that one could at the same time tolerate the maximizing of gain for some without at the same time courting disaster for all. That time is past. It’s past because of the reach of technology — the technology that gives us war.

Citizen-scientists

And so, I think the time is pretty serious — and we have to look in a direction where I see the possibility of the solution. We have to look at the nature of citizenship, and at that experience of collaboration that we have known historically. Here women have always been in the forefront, bringing their experience from their homes into the communities, knowing that it is far more important to minimize disaster than to maximize gain, bringing the skills of listening, of ferreting out what is needed. These citizens’ skills must be augmented with the knowledge of science, or about science, that the technological society needs.

Now that knowledge is much less than what is usually paraded, because I privately think that the, let’s say “technification” or “scientification” of arguments is a political ploy. There is a difference between discussing what should be done and how it should be done. You don’t argue with architects about how they do the foundations, but you do argue about what sort of foundations you have, and whether or not a certain place is right for a certain building. Nevertheless most citizens are brainwashed into thinking that they know nothing and the experts know it all.

For those of us who do function on occasion as experts, it is absolutely essential to work with citizens on two levels. One is to demystify the affairs that are presented as being scientific. The other is to give enough information, in a clear enough form, that people can converse and are shielded from the obvious put-down. That is not so difficult. I think one overestimates the difficulty, because one always thinks that science means doing science rather than understanding science. These two things are not the same — there are a lot of people who do science in the sense of doing experiments. They haven’t a clue what they are doing. They have no understanding of science. And there are people who have a profound understanding of science who would not have the background to go into the lab and do the next experiment. We find this in debates and discussions, in good science writing. There is really only the difficulty of teaching — taking the time in a noncompetitive atmosphere to bring people who haven’t happened to have grown up in a lab an understanding of how it functions. Anyone who can fill out an income tax form can understand how nuclear fusion works!

If we want to make any contribution to get out of where we are (and I’m so delighted to speak here because Science for Peace, Toronto chapter, has taken this step through their lectures) the crucial step is to narrow the difference between the citizens and the scientists by stressing the literacy — the civic literacy — that is an essential part of education. Many of my colleagues certainly are, at best, Grade B citizens when it comes to political sophistication. One must share what is essential about science — about understanding science — with those who have other skills to share with us.

This is why it is so necessary not to act as if the community consists of interested and concerned citizens on the one hand, and scientists on the other. *Rather we must say that we need for the struggle in front of us, citizen-scientists. Their practice of science will hold the knowledge that we need for this earth as a common good. They will refuse to consider knowledge as a commodity, in which the knowers need to be paid by esteem or money or both to share their knowledge, graciously, in bits and pieces. They also will value equally the knowledge of the citizen — the knowledge that we need to minimize the disaster we see over the horizon.

For I’m not at all sanguine about what is happening on the political front. Much as we are thankful for the developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I have never thought the question of peace a question of external affairs. I think the question of peace is a question of justice, and I am not so sure that global justice has advanced in any way; or whether instead we see a decrease of danger for the haves with an increase of danger for the have-nots. It may be that war has been externalized from the affairs of state in the East-West sense, and pushed into the competition between the rich and the poor — the internal competition at home, or the war between the rich and the poor in the global economy. So I am far from being sanguine that we are any further away from the dangers of war. For that reason I can only plead with you to look at enlarging and increasing the tools for citizenship, that are now also the tools for saving the environment, by contributing what science can bring, realizing that what science can bring is a small fraction of what is needed.

We should not forget history. We should not forget that the technological society, that we now see impinging on both peace and justice, has resulted from what by many is called the scientific revolution. I will close by reminding you that the great historian of technology, Lewis Mumford, once said — that if we want to describe in one sentence the difference between the 13th century to 15th century, and the 18th century to 19th century, we see that the seven deadly sins of the Middle Ages have become the seven cardinal virtues of the new industrial world. There is greed and avarice, there is envy, there is gluttony — there are all the things that have become the motors of economic well-being. And to put science in the service of peace, we must not ignore the things that have happened in the past, and that now come to our and the next generations, to be reconciled, redeemed and hopefully transcended.

Transcribed and edited by Mary Vise