Air University Review, May-June 1967
Major Harry H. Malvin
In the Court of Public Opinion, The People of the
World v. Science and Technology. Barry Commoner, for the people, charges the
defendants with negligent homicide, assault with deadly weapons, rapine,
malicious mischief, vandalism, fraud, conspiracy, and perversion. This listing
of heinous charges summarizes the content of Dr. Commoner’s new book, which
consists chiefly of a series of specifications under each of the charges and
the plaintiffs’ arguments. * Dr. Commoner can plead the case with authority, witness his Harvard Ph.D. in biology, his
professorship of plant physiology and chairmanship of the Department of Botany
The first two chapters indict the engineers for not anticipating and protecting against the recent power failure in the Northeastern United States and neighboring Canada; the nuclear and military scientists for not anticipating the fallout patterns and long-term effects of the early Nevada tests; the manufacturers and users of fossil fuels, internal combustion engines, detergents, and fertilizers for pollution, etc. On page 27 Dr. Commoner summarizes his attitude in these words, “Sooner or later, wittingly or unwittingly, we must pay for every intrusion on the natural environment.” Shortly after (p. 29) he cites scientists for dereliction of duty, the duty of “ . . . prediction and control of human intervention into nature.”
The third chapter is an intrusion in the proceedings and was apparently included to discredit the defendants. The classical and the molecular biologists are paired off in this chapter, which, incidentally, would have been more effective if Dr. Commoner’s classicism were less apparent. Two points are noteworthy in this chapter: first, there is the idea that truth is established by time and by lack of preexisting effective challenge; and second, that there is no beginning to the egg-chicken-egg cycle. From this it may be inferred that life, like energy-matter, cannot be created or destroyed but can merely be converted according to pre-established laws of conservation.
The fourth chapter emphasizes the schism between science and the rest of society. In this chapter the charges of conspiracy and perversion are made: conspiracy to restrain the free exchange of scientific knowledge for reasons of commercial advantage or national security, and the perversion of scientific curiosity toward political and economic ends.
Chapter Five describes the immediate and the long-term indirect effects of a nuclear holocaust. The material is sobering and worthy of more than a moment’s reflection. After this description of the potential magnitude of the defendants’ crimes, Dr. Commoner, in the sixth chapter, isolates the scientist from the citizenry in the title of the chapter, “The Scientist and the Citizen,” and then reiterates the arguments about fallout and pollution. He then in the same chapter introduces the concepts of “Risk versus Benefit” (p. 98) and of divergent opinions of scientists, both in their fields of special competence and in unrelated fields. In concluding this chapter he cites a novel approach (p. 109), that of an informed citizenry. The example of the novel approach in action suggests that an informed citizenry is omniscient and can reasonably guide the future path of science and technology.
In the final chapter there is a reiteration of the indictment and, in the event they are exonerated, a charge to the miscreants to reform.
Dr. Commoner writes well. His book is brief and easy to read. There is a careful selection of the evidence, and the plaintiffs’ arguments are logically developed and effectively presented. Although this is not the place to take issue with the author’s position, it is the place to introduce material which places that position in proper perspective.
Contemporary science and technology claim neither omniscience nor infallibility. Differing opinions are tolerated so long as they represent honest attempts to interpret available data. As a Monday morning quarterback, Dr. Commoner is in an enviable position—he is not held accountable for his opinions regardless of how loudly they are expressed.
In moving from differences of opinion to scientific truth, one encounters some difficulties. Apparently scientific truth is a misnomer for the concept of consistency within a system or for conformance to valid observations. With this definition, the earth has only recently been transformed from flat surface to sphere to oblate spheroid, and during that transformation it has apparently lost its place at the center of the universe. At least this must be the case if truth is measured by the duration of time a concept remains successfully unchallenged or by the extent of the population base which accepts the concept as valid. Before dismissing the matter of scientific truth, one further observation is appropriate. In chiding the molecular biologist Dr. Commoner refers to the “ . . unchallenged principle, omnes ex ovo,” which discredited earlier theories of spontaneous generation. Less than half a century ago, the alchemists’ concept of the transmutability of elements was also in disrepute.
While on the subject of the immutability of natural laws, we should mention another generally accepted biological law, the evolutionary principle of natural selection. In the fifth chapter Dr. Commoner introduces the popular science-fiction ploy of man versus insect. There is no argument with the facts, and Dr. Commoner is to be congratulated on his choice of a dramatic illustration. The point is, what save unparalleled human egotism renders man fittest and therefore best suited to survive the natural selection process? Over the years, after all, many species have become extinct.
The concept of the informed citizenry, which is well illustrated in the American jury system, is not novel; but when informed experts disagree on the interpretation of valid data, what is the educated citizen to do? In the same vein, and in conclusion, one question for Dr. Commoner:
In your position as a scientist and an informed citizen, Dr. Commoner, and recognizing that no scientific or technologic progress is made without cost, how would you choose to die?
· By starvation, because the agriculture failed to keep pace with a growing population (as in
· By schistosomiasis or other parasitic infestation, because agricultural potential has been augmented by night soil (common in many parts of the world)?
· Or by the side effects of pollution by insecticidal agents and inorganic fertilizers (nitrates and phosphates)?
*Barry Commoner, Science and Survival (New York: The Viking Press, 1966, $4.50), 150 pp.
Major Harry Malvin, USAF (MC), is Chief,
Pathology Branch, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine,
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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