Excerpt from the preface of "Stochastic Processes" by John W. Lamperti (Springer, 1977)

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If it is true that the mathematics discussed in this book is applicable, the question naturally must arise: “Applicable for what?”

In the preface to the mimeographed version of my Aarhus lectures, given while the Indochina War was still raging, I said:

“It is impossible for me these days to write or lecture about mathematics without ambivalence. It is obvious that in many nations, and most of all in my own, science and mathematics are all too often serving as tools for militarism and oppression. Probability theory has played a considerable role in some of these perversions, and those who like myself , work in ‘‘pure mathematics” rather than directly, with applications must also accept a share of the responsibility. I believe that today it is a vital duty for the scientific community to struggle against such misuse of science, and to resist the demands – made in the name of “defense” or “security” – to develop ever more efficient means of killing and exploiting other human beings.”

Such concerns, of course, are not new. The American mathematician who has contributed most to the theories developed in this book is undoubtedly Norbert Wiener. In 1947, in the introduction to his influential book Cybernetics , Wiener wrote:

“Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers. The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation.”

That was an important statement, but we must now go further. I believe that scientists have an obligation to try to estimate which of the possible results of new technical developments are likely to occur in reality. This cannot be done in a social and political vacuum. In a peaceful, liberated, nonexploitative society there would be little to fear; beneficial applications would be pushed while harmful ones would wither. But in today’s United States it is mainly the government, especially the Pentagon, and the giant corporations which have the resources and the desire to exploit advanced techno logy for their own purposes. I do not think the prospects here for the benign application of science are encouraging. Elsewhere in the world the outlook is rarely much better, and sometimes worse.

What then can be done? To personally abstain from immediately harmful work is a first step, but no more. Wiener’s emphasis on public education is surely important; the vital decisions must not be left to the experts and rulers, but should be made in a broad political forum. This is beginning to happen in the nuclear energy controversy, for example, despite powerful efforts to exclude the public from meaningful participation. Individual scientists and engineers, and several organizations of scientists have played important roles in this process.

Perhaps the key word which must be added to Weiner’s statement is “organize.” The great day of the dedicated solitary researcher is over, if indeed it ever existed. Now our scientific work is elaborately planned and supported, but the old individualistic ideology of “disinterested research” and “knowledge for its own sake” persists. These concepts can serve as intellectual blinders which prevent us from understanding the social role which we in fact do play as mathematicians, scientists and engineers, and which keep us from working effectively for change. In their stead, concern for human consequences of scientific and technological achievement must become part of our working lives, of our teaching and learning, of our professional meetings and writing. Only through organized collective action can this be achieved.

The goal of controlling and humanizing science will not be fully attained, I believe, until radical changes have been made in the structure of society. I also believe that to wait for that day before beginning to act invites disaster. Fortunately there appear to be a growing number of people, in the U.S. and elsewhere, who are deeply concerned about the social consequences of their scientific work, who are ready to give this concern a major role in their professional lives, and who are getting together in old and new ways to develop their ideas and to put them into practice. Since this must be the starting point, perhaps there is some basis for optimism.

Thanks to Chandler Davis for finding this in his library and bringing it to our attention.

Whole issue on one page | as PDF

ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)

Comments

  1. Fred Brailey

    As a student of wars’ incentives and ideologies, I concur with Lamberti’s questioning the role of scientists/technologists. It has been debated forever,but now with increasing urgency. The answer seems to rest in the hands of those who are concerned, to avert war-making in any way they can. I would recommend reading the views of Paul K. Chappell of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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