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Social and Moral Responsibility of Science and Scientists


The publication of the book, entitled Star Warrior: A Penetrating Look into the lives of the young scientists Behind our Space Age Weaponry has revived the age-old question of the social responsibility of science and scientists. William Broad, the author of the book, has given, in this publication, an insight into the life of the scientists, Rod Hyde, Peter Hagelstein, and others who are now doing research work to complete spaceships and to design laser beam weapons for what has now come to be known as 'star wars'. He has exposed how primitive are the political perceptions and the lifestyles and food habits of these scientists. They have few interests beyond their unidimensional research work. They do not know and they have no time to think how far their research work is going to affect and influence society. Perhaps they think that it is for the social scientists to look into this aspect of their research.

In fact, this belief that scientists have no social and moral responsibility beyond devotedly making discoveries has been widely prevalent among scientists for more than about a hundred years now. Many scientists have been of the view that the findings of science are value-free. They have generally taken the stand that science aims to discover the secrets behind the forces and processes of Nature and thus to uncover an area of truth and that what a scientist or science discovers has objective validity and therefore, it cannot be said of them that the findings are 'good' or 'bad for the society. It was said that value judgments cannot be applied to the hypotheses, theories, or concepts formulated by scientists. In other words, the scientists held that ethical values cannot be applied to scientific discoveries per se.

Who bears the social responsibility?

Those who held the above-stated view said that it was the technological use of these scientific discoveries which might be judged as 'good' or 'bad for the society and, for this reason, it is the political leaders in power, the administrators, the industrialists, and the technocrats and their tribes and not the theoretical scientists who could be held morally responsible because it was the former and not the latter who decide as to what use be made of the available scientific knowledge; it is these who formulate policies and execute the decisions.

The above view may have appeared to have some validity at some point of time in the past but when we review the history of science and its progress over a period of about a century, and we make an attempt to assess the impact of science on society and its morals during this period, the above view seems to be erroneous.

Impact of science on lifestyles and morals

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the findings of science have given birth to a new civilization, new culture, new lifestyle, new beliefs, new outlook, and new morals. No one can deny that the concepts given by science or scientists have so deeply influenced man's thoughts, religious beliefs, and morals and have, in fact, not left a single aspect or area of life untouched.

For instance, it would be incorrect to say that Darwin's theory of biological evolution has not influenced the value system which each religious community or metaphysical school once held. Its direct or indirect denial of God without any scientific proof and its emphasis on the principle of the survival of the fittest had sent strong shock-waves into the theological edifice of Christianity and had, overtly or covertly. shook its moral foundations.

Likewise, the Newtonian mechanistic worldview and the views of Laplace, which were rigidly deterministic, left little scope for free will which forms the very basis of all ethics and moral values. Contrariwise, the views of some scientists or 'Randomness' and ' Heisenberg's Principle of Indeterminacy' or 'Principle of Uncertainty' had their own deep impact on metaphysics and various value-systems based on it.

It would, perhaps, be needless to add more such instances of scientific theories, influencing perceptibly and heavily the moral values generally accepted by a great part of the society, but it would be necessary to point out that not the finding of physicists or physics but all scientific disciplines have left their deep impression on man's morals. The new knowledge about the nature and functions of chromosomes and genes in Biology and the knowledge of the chemistry of the double helix of DNA and RNA, and the deeper understanding of the processes of replication or reproduction also have left their impact on religious beliefs, metaphysical concepts of man's overall world-view and man's morals.

Of course, the political leaders in power, the bureaucrats and the industrialists who formulate and decide the policies as to the purpose to which the scientific knowledge is to be put, or who found the technological projects and their implementation, are deeply involved in making decisions which may prove beneficial, harmful or suicidal for the society but the theoreticians, the academicians and the researchers also who make scientific probes or investigations cannot be absolved of their social and moral responsibility for their discoveries, for, after all, they know that their findings are going to be used for the society and, more often than not, they also know to what use their discoveries can be put and what effect these will have on the society or the individuals.

At this point, it would be better to give the example of an event to show how scientific discoveries and decisions of scientists have a moral dimension too.

How Socio-economic and political environment affects scientists?

It would be proper first to give an instance to show how the prevalent socio-political environment in a society affects an individual's morals, including those of top-class scientists. It would then be shown how the viewpoints of a scientist influence him to use his knowledge of a particular discovery towards an end which, as he knows, may prove destructive to a great segment of society. It will also be shown how the scientists-the theoreticians and academicians-influence even the politicians and, through them, the bureaucrats and technocrats and that scientists also, like other human beings, are not apolitical nor amoral; they too have feelings of fear, hate, and vengeance and may use their knowledge of science under the influence of such negative thoughts and may thus influence, in turn, the whole society.

Let us turn our attention for a while, to Germany in the second, third, and fourth decade of the twentieth century. In 1920, an Anti-Einstein League was formed in Germany, and it offered large amounts of money to anyone who would write refutations of Einstein's work. On 24th August of that year, this League sponsored a meeting in Berlin Philharmonic Hall, where Einstein's work was attacked and antisemitic slogans were shouted. Einstein himself had attended this meeting and there were speeches against his Theory of Relativity in his very presence. Einstein felt bitter and angry and he wrote a letter to Berliner Tageblatt a periodical that published that letter. (Einstein's friends had wished that Einstein should have tried to ignore the matter but Einstein had taken this step). The matter, however, did not end there. There was a mounting campaign against the whole Jewish Community, as is now well-known and against Einstein so much so that Einstein, hurt by this atmosphere, left Germany in 1932.

Even after that, the campaign of hatred and vilification against him and his theory went on. In 1933, Phillipp Lenard wrote in Volkische Beobachter:

"The most important example of the dangerous influence of Jewish circles on the study of nature has been provided by Herr Einstein. Even scientists who have otherwise done solid work cannot escape the reproach that they allowed the Relativity theory to get a foothold in Germany, because they did not see or did not want to see, how wrong it is, outside the field of science also, to regard this Jew as a good German.'

In 1935, Phillipp Lenard, in his inaugural address at the opening of a new institute of Physics, said;

"... We must recognize that it is unworthy of a German to be the intellectual follower of a Jew....."

Now all these happenings, influenced Einstein's attitude towards the political and moral questions of the day.

In 1933, he wrote to a French pacifist:

"What I shall tell you will greatly surprise you. Until quite recently, we in Europe could assume that personal war resistance constituted an effective attack on militarism. Today we face an altogether different situation. In the heart of Europe lies a power, Germany, that is obviously, pushing towards war with all available means. Imagine Belgium occupied by present-day Germany! Things would be far worse than in 1914, and they were bad enough even then. Hence I must tell you candidly; Were I a Belgian, I should not in the present circumstances refuse military service; rather I should enter such service cheerfully in the belief that I would thereby be helping to save European Civilisation."

It is clear that Einstein, affected by the political climate of that time had then become Anti-Nazi and had remained so ever afterward as will be clear from his reply to Arnold Sommerfeld, who wrote to Einstein in 1946, suggesting that Einstein might be interested in renewing his membership in the Bavarian Academy from which Einstein had been expelled in 1933. Einstein wrote;

"The Germans slaughtered my Jewish brethren; I will have nothing further to do with them, not even with a relatively harmless academy..."

Examples of scientists influencing political and economic policies

We will now see how, Einstein, who had now become Anti-Nazi, was influenced by two other scientists, Eugene Wigner and Szilard. These two scientists had realized that if Germany was going to try to build a bomb, she would require large quantities of Uranium. They knew that Hitler, after seizing Czechoslovakia in 1939, had taken immediate steps to block the export of Uranium which was an indication that they were aware of its military applications. Szilard knew also that Einstein had a close friendship with the Belgian royal family and was in periodic correspondence with Queen Elizabeth. So, Wigner and Szilard thought of informing Einstein about the situation and ask him to write the Queen to keep the Uranium deposits in Belgium Congo from falling into the hands of Germans and to open up an important source of supply for the United States of America.

So, Wigner and Leo Szilard paid Einstein a visit in mid-July, 1939 at Nassau Point and conversed with Einstein on the above points. It was then decided that a letter would be drafted to the Queen and would be sent to her after getting it cleared through the States Department.

Szilard and Fermi were working at the physics department at Columbia University where they did not have sufficient financial support for their research on fission. Szilard and Edward Teller, who was then a visiting professor at Columbia, went to Long Island where Einstein was then staying and suggested to Einstein to write to Roosevelt. Einstein dictated the first draft in German, of which a modified English translation was prepared by Szilard and signed by Einstein and sent to Roosevelt through Alexander Sacks, an economist, who was an adviser to Roosevelt. The letter read:


Some recent work by E, Fermi, and Szilard, which has been communicated to me in the manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration. I believe, therefore, that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.

In the course of the last four months, it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America that it may become possible to set up nuclear chain reactions in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future,

This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable though much less certain that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat or exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.

The United States has only poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and former Czechoslovakia while the most important source of Uranium is the Belgian Congo.

Because of this situation, you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust with this task a person who has your confidence and who would perhaps serve in an unofficial capacity. His task might comprise the following.

(1) To approach Government Departments, keep them informed of further developments, and put forward recommendations for Government action, giving particular attention to the problem of securing the supply of Uranium ore for the United States.

(2) To speed up experimental work which is at present being carried on within the limits of the budgets of University laboratories, by providing funds, if such funds are required through his contacts with private persons who are willing to make contributions for his cause, and perhaps, also by obtaining the co-operation of industrial laboratories which have the necessary equipment.

I understand Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakia mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsacker, is attached to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.

Your very truly,

A. Einstein."

It should be known in this connection that Mr. Sacks finally delivered Einstein's letter to Roosevelt on 11th Oct.1939 and on 19th Oct. Roosevelt sent to Einstein a brief note, stating:

"I have found this data of such import that I have convened a board consisting of the head of the Bureau of Standards and a chosen representative of the Army and Navy to thoroughly investigate the possibilities of your suggestion regarding the elements of Uranium."

Soon afterward, the Advisory Committee was formed, Einstein also had informal contact with this committee though he was not a member of it

Now it should be clear from the above that the work on fission done by Szilard, Fermi, and others had deep social and ethical implications also, for the invention of the atom bomb has greatly altered the social, political, economic, and moral scene at the international level and that in turn, has not only affected man enormously at the individual level but has threatened the very survival of the human race.

Further, it should be evident that even Einstein, who was a top-class academician and a pacifist was influenced by the socio-economic and political environment of his day and also by a fellow scientist, such as Eugene Wigner, Szilard, and Edward Tellers.

It is also obvious in this case that scientists like Einstein, Wingner, and others had taken a decision about the practical application of scientific discoveries and were involved though indirectly in the formulation of policy for its use for war purposes. It was Einstein and other scientists who had led the political leaders, the bureaucrats, and the industrialists to decide in favor of using Uranium for making an atom bomb, knowing pretty well that it would have great destructive power.

It is true that Einstein personally was not involved in any research, which required the use of Uranium and which led finally to the invention of the atom bomb nor was he in any way associated with the work of studying uranium and, further, this also is true that he was shocked to hear the news of an atom bomb having been dropped on Hiroshima, but this also is equally true-as historical records prove that it was he who had first suggested the matter to Roosevelt.

Because of all this, he who says that discoveries of science are value-free only closes his eyes to the events of history and variable facts. One must remember that scientists also have a political dimension and a moral dimension of their being and, as part of the society they are influenced by the society and their findings and their work influence the society, including its moral structure and this is only natural and true. Scientists, therefore, cannot absolve themselves of their moral responsibility nor can they reasonably overlook or ignore the moral aspect of their work.

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